Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Some Thing About Names


One of the first things that Westerners have to adjust to when moving to a Chinese-dominated society is dealing with names. There are cultural differences when dealing with names.

For a start, the Chinese start with the family name while in the West, the family name follows the given (Christian) name. For example, Tang and not Li is my surname. However, many Chinese, particularly the Western educated ones are fairly flexible with their names when dealing with Westerners. Many take on Western names. Lee Kuan Yew (Family name is Lee), Singapore’s founding Prime Minister goes by “Harry Lee” when he’s with friends and family.

Many Chinese also reverse their names so as to not confuse Westerners. One of Asia’s most prominent film directors went from being “Lee Ang” to “Ang Lee.” When I lived in the West, I was “Li Tang” (It took several years to accept that I had to reverse my name – mum said I had to be flexible so the Westerners wouldn’t get confused – I didn’t see why I had to reverse my name in the West when Westerners don’t do the same in Asia. However, I’ve adjusted and I accept my Western friends and family calling me “Li Tang” because that’s who I’ve been to them for so many years.). When I moved back to Singapore I became “Tang Li” (I’ve had to bite my lip from screaming abusive terms at business partners who have called me “Li Tang” at client meetings. – They’re Asian and we live in Asia.)

The other thing that stumps Westerners when dealing with Asian names is their pronunciation.  Chinese names are tough as many of the names break the rules of English. The example that comes to mind is “NG” (how do you pronounce something with no vowels.) If Chinese names are tough for Westerners, Indian and Southeast Asian ones are worse.

What I’ve just described is what you’d call the material that provides you with enough material for a slapstick comedy based on cultural misunderstandings. There easy ways to get round these issues.

There is, however, a more serious issue when dealing with names – namely the issue of trying to figure out relationships between various parties. While the Western world has a seeming number of surnames, the Asian one seems fairly limited. I suspect that many Westerners suspect that we’re highly inbred because you find that there are lots of people walking around any given Asian city with the same surname.

I think of how it’s considered quite a rare event for Grandma Millie (Step Dad Lee’s mother) to marry a man with the same surname. By contrast, in my father’s family we’ve had two generations of Tang’s marrying Wong’s (Grandpa and Grandma and one of my uncle’s married a Wong). If there seems to be lack of Chinese surnames, there seem to be even less of them in Vietnam – the place was filled with “Nguyen’s” and “Vu’s.”

Well, we aren’t that inbred. With Chinese names, a lot of it tends to be found in the way a name is “romanised.” Had to explain to step granny Joan (step mother Nora’s mother) that my family “Tang” was not related to the “Tang Emperors,” even though the names are spelt the same in English. The Chinese character for my family name is different from the ancient emperors. If you use the ‘pinyin’ of spelling my family name it would be closer to “Deng” I have an Aunt who lives in the USA. She has ‘pinyinized’ her family name to “Deng.” By contrast the rest of us are still on the Wade Giles form of Romanizing our name – hence we remain ‘Tang.’

So, I guess when you understand things this way, you’ll find that Asians are not as inbred as one might initially imagine.


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