Before we immigrated to South Africa in 1991, my name was Lin Ming-Cheau and that was what it was from 1988 (my birth year).
In Taiwan, like China and Korea, our names comprise three words and sound out as three syllables.
My surname lin (I wouldn’t call it my last name as our surnames appear before our first names) means forest, ming means light, next, apparent or clear and cheau pronounced as ‘tjiao’ (almost ‘chow’) not ‘chew’ means coincidental, skillful, artful or cunning and is also used alone as a ‘phrase’ for ‘as it happens’.
In Taiwan my family spoke Hokkien (a Taiwanese language) and Mandarin (what many known simply as Chinese) but once we immigrated to South Africa, things changed.
Our names changed to characters used in the west and the way they sound changed too.
Chinese writing is different to English. While English has 26 letters there are 35 letters in the Chinese alphabet and these letters aren’t what you see in Chinese and Taiwanese media.
These letters, in combinations of one, two or three, form the characters or words.
In English, using the Roman or Latin alphabet (the very letters that this article is written in) takes away the beauty behind the individual words of my name. And the way they're supposed to sound.
In these Roman characters it means nothing. It’s just the phonetics of a butchered version of my name and that was thoughtfully given to me by my parents.
But in addition to my Chinese name, my parents were advised to give us English names to make our transition into life in Bloemfontein easier.
I can understand why my parents did this. They wanted us to fit in but unfortunately an assimilated name doesn’t make things easier when your facial features and skin tone are different to what others around you are used to.
They called me Sandy.
My name was picked out of a baby book. It sounded nice.
I was four. I didn’t understand or know the difference any way.
It was the early 90s, and with ‘Grease’ being such a popular movie that time, I assume it was influenced by Sandra Dee.
‘My name is Sandy, nice to meet you.’
It was just a name… I never really gave it much thought as a kid.
Revisiting my childhood memories, I realised that I was reclaiming my identity from when I was 12. I started using M-C as a signature and nickname.
I just didn’t want to use Sandy when I started growing a stronger sense of identity, it seemed.
After introductions, many would ask me ‘but what’s your real name?’ When I did, they’d repeat it back to me with a forced nasal sound, which lead to a joke or mockery of my mother tongue.
As innocent as the question was, it created a deeper sense of confusion and anger as the internal debate started and I found no trace of Sandy on any official documentation. Not my passport or my green ID book… just my school report and the labels on my school books.
After matriculating, my folks took me to open up a student bank account, as I’d be moving to Cape Town to study.
I remember how awful the bank made me feel when they told me I couldn’t get a student account because my matric certificate said ‘Sandy Lin’ whereas my ID said Ming-Cheau Lin.
They said for all they knew I could be ‘two different people’.
We didn’t want to make a scene and couldn’t do anything but leave and try at another bank. Because an 18-year-old immigrant now citizen who needed a student account is definitely the type of person who’d be guilty of identity theft?
Everyone at the bank was staring at this Taiwanese family as we walked out in unnecessary disappointment.
In college, I studied branding and specialised in copywriting, which gave me perspective and more confidence in my Chinese name.
That's when I decided to reclaim my birth name, identity as a Taiwanese woman and immigrant raised in South Africa.
That being said, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a western name.
Once I was mature enough to understand why, I just didn’t feel comfortable with the reason why I received mine. But reclaiming it came with it’s own set of problems.
Many from my childhood don’t understand the change and find it humorous to some extent.
Others use it but add a fake ‘Chinese’ accent when they say it and some think my name is Lin (even though Lin appears last like all other surnames here).
Then there are the ones who ask a million questions just based off my name which is quite invasive especially in a professional or non-personal setting and some who literally hear ‘Megan’. Understand that this has happened many times.
But… is it my fault for having a name they’re not used to? Am I ‘asking for it’ by reclaiming my identity?
Having a name like mine has helped me become sensitive towards others with a similar plight.
Lol! Nthabiseng becomes Nathabising, whwn shortened to Nthabi it then becomes Thembi, Mtembi, Mtambi, i could go on! For a short time in high school i used my English name but decided to go back to me so they'll have to learn to pronounce and deal.— #Black2TheFuture (@nthabiseng_ms) January 16, 2018
I make the effort to try and learn how to pronounce their names, watching the way their lips shape the sounds, focusing on where they placed the emphasis.
When I struggle, I ask how it's spelled to get a better grasp of the phonetics. The idea is to try.
My name is pronounced "Injy" in Arabic but everyone hears "Angie". Most people don't even try to pronounce my name. In grade school, substitute teachers would just pause when doing roll call. Some who try call me "An-gee" like the g in "green". Ugh. Also I get "Angry?" A LOT.— Angy El-Khatib, MPH, CHES (@angyotensin) January 16, 2018
To try make the other person feel comfortable. To try not shame them for having a ‘tricky’ name as it’s not difficult for them or those that speak their language. To try be humble and not change their identity for our personal comfort’s sake.
My name is Nonhle.— Nonhle Beryl (@NonhleBeryl) January 16, 2018
It sounds a bit like Non-claire.
I live in Germany so someone once suggested I adopt a stage name (I’m a singer and actress) to make it easier for Europeans to pronounce my name.
I refused. ??????
So, I posed the question on Twitter, asking others to share their stories with me about any memories of someone butchering their name and making them feel small.
I wish I'd done this earlier because wow… there are so many of us who've experienced this.
I was on holiday when I introduced myself to someone as Tshego (the short version of my name Tshegofatso). The person responded that my name was too difficult for them to pronounce and asked if they can call me Zazu? A character from the Lion King? Really? ??— Tshegs (@Tshegs) January 16, 2018
So my deal is that people hear what they want. I've had Veronica, Monica & even Madiba ??. My name is Radheeka. And now I get called nunu??— Radheeka Reyatt (@TONTONESS) January 16, 2018
Mine is easy, 4 letters, no tricks in pronouncing it; but English speakers sometimes go out of their way to add a few letters & do innovative tongue twists when saying it...and I’m like, how did you even get there? ???????????????????????? https://t.co/a9n2eN8eBZ— SindiG (@SindiGee) January 16, 2018