Like most Taiwanese people, I used to have an English name. My mom, a woman with an international mindset, named me both Chieh and James upon my birth. Ever since then, I was Chieh Hsu to Mandarin speakers; otherwise, I was simply James with an unpronounceable last name.
Fast forward, I moved to the U.S. in my junior year of high school and most of my friends and teachers began to know me as James. Few undertook the mission to learn its Mandarin counterpart and amongst them was my math teacher, who inspired me to changed my attitude on the matter.
I was never formally introduced to Ms. Rhodes, so she simply called me by my name on the attendance sheet, Chieh Hsu, and since she was doing a good job pronouncing it, I never revealed that I also went by an English name.
One day, she overheard my friends calling me James, and I was immediately met by her questioning eyes.
“Do you prefer people to call you James or Chieh?”
“Well, I guess I’d like them to call me Chieh since most people from my country call me that, but most Americans can’t pronounce it well.”
“I think you should tell them to call you Chieh if that is what you prefer. Plus, since it is your NAME, they should at least try to pronounce it right.”
I agreed with Ms. Rhodes. I should not choose to use a Western name just because it would be easier for Americans to address me. However, there are more reasons that prompted me to abandon my English name altogether.
One, the name James did not represent who I was. Traditionally, it is a European name meaning “the supplanter,” which neither represented me on my ethnicity or my personality. If one searches up “images of James” on google, the results are mostly whites or blacks who do not physically resemble me.
Two, using the name James effectively hinders people to identify my origin. Although I speak English with an accent, it is somewhat peculiar that no-one can guess my root correctly.
Although I have an Asian face, anyone could easily mistake my Taiwanese heritage as Japanese or Chinese, even Korean. With a little understanding of Asian languages, however, one could deduce my nationality by simply knowing my name.
Three, a person’s name is the most important way to showcase their pride in their lineage. If I choose to use the name James, I would be wasting this precious opportunity.
If you are a Taiwanese who is using a name from a language that you have no heritage in, I encourage you to abolish it and use your Mandarin name on all occasions. No matter how many languages you speak or where you live, there will only be one collective identity of yours, after all.
The question is, how would you choose to represent yourself?
Chieh Hsu is an undergraduate student in global studies at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Chieh, who grew up in Chiayi, Taiwan, has studied two years of high school in Washington D.C, where he has often passionately attended demonstrations. His coverage focuses on international relations and globalization in Taiwan.