Notes from a fascinating world.
The world is like a bazaar, full of interesting odds and ends, and I've been exiled into it. This is my all-over-the-map (literally and metaphorically) attempt at capturing some of the world's many wonders.
A recent “Dear Abby” column recommended that parents who may have non-Western backgrounds give their children “traditional ‘Western’ names.”
A non-Western name, Abby wrote, can “cause a child to be teased unmercifully” in school. She went on: “Why saddle a kid with a name he or she will have to explain or correct with friends, teachers, and fellow employees from childhood into adulthood?”
Unsurprisingly, there has been a substantial amount of backlash, not least on that fount of genteel and good-natured discussions called Twitter, against this bit of racist-lite parenting advice. But the controversy makes me consider the significance of my own name, or rather names.
I came by the name of “William” in the most perfunctory manner. When I was eight or nine and living in the country of my birth, Taiwan, my parents decided that it was time that I started learning English. They also decided that, if I was going to take English lessons, I might as well have an English name. They chose “William” not because of its meaning or any other significance, but simply because it sounded very slightly similar to the name I was born with, my Chinese name.
It would be many years before it was put to me that taking an Anglicized name could be an active effort to assimilate into Western society, done at the expense of one’s cultural heritage.
We never thought like this at the time in Taiwan. It was more or less customary to choose an English name when studying that language. My father is John, my mother is Joanne, and my sister is Patricia. And this girl in my class in middle school decided that she would be Jennifer. To my mind, we could have as many names as there were languages that we studied.
I still think that. In college I decided to study Russian. Alone among my classmates, I asked the professor to pick a Russian name for me. “Vasiliy,” she decided and addressed me as such for the rest of the semester. Now whenever I’m in a Russian-speaking country, I introduce myself as Vasiliy, invariably to the locals’ great amusement. (The Moldovans got a real kick out of calling me Vasya, the diminutive form.)
I would conjecture that we can trace this attitude to Chinese tradition. It was the practice of the Chinese literati to have multiple names. For every poet we had to read in school, we also had to memorize his or her name, “courtesy name,” and literary nom de guerre. Like this: “Li Bai; courtesy name Li Taibai; pen name Qinglian Jushi (Householder of Azure Lotus).”
At the same time, it is with great abandon that both the Chinese and the Taiwanese induct their Western friends into their ranks by giving them Chinese names. My Chinese history professor in college, Jonathan Spence, is always referred to in the Chinese/Taiwanese press as “Shi Jingqian.” The great legal scholar Jerome Cohen writes a column in the Taiwanese papers under the name “Kong Jierong.”
And yet, names are undeniably fraught with significance. Shakespeare might have written in Romeo and Juliet, “What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other word would smell as sweet.” But in the Bible, God has Adam name all the animals in the world (Gen. 2:19-20), because by naming them he would also declare dominion over them. To name is to assert power.
In light of modern research, we know what names can do. Guys named “Lawrence” are more likely to become lawyers; guys named “Dennis” are more likely to become dentists. There is also evidence that in Western countries, job applicants with names that sound “ethnic” to white ears are less likely to be invited to job interviews. (A charitable reading of Abby would say that she is looking out for the children’s future employment prospects.) One Chinese-American female friend, already with an Anglicized first name, once confessed to me that she couldn’t wait to marry her white boyfriend so that she could take his last name. (Although, now that they are married, I have yet to see her change her name.)
As for me, I am clearly influenced by the several meanings of my several names. “William” comes from the Germanic root “wil-” — the notion of will, volition, and choice. I ought to be what I choose to be.
My Chinese given name, “Dunwei,” was half-determined by my place in the family genealogy: the first syllable, “Dun,” is from the family poem and shared by everyone of my generation in the clan; only the second half is personal to me (and it gave rise to “William”). So it reminds me of my place in the long history of my family and by extension in the grand scheme of things.
And “Vasiliy” comes from the Greek word “vasilias,” meaning “king.” Well, that just makes me feel like a royal, which is just fine because my surname was also at one point a royal name. That’s something I like to recall when I am faced with discrimination. Even if I’m not literally descended from kings, I am still — like Saint-Exupéry’s Little Prince on his asteroid — on the level that matters the lord of my own domain.
Sometimes people ask me, when I introduce myself as William, “But what is your real name?” I always say that it is my real name, my real English name. My other names are also real. Because I make them real. Because I choose to acknowledge them, through my will. Because I know where I come from. Because I am my own prince.
Writer, traveler, lawyer, dilettante. Failed student of physics. Not altogether distinguished graduate of two Ivy League institutions. Immigrant twice over. "The grand tour is just the inspired man's way of getting home."