Call Me By My Names: A Story of Shame, Trauma, and Liberation in a Chinese Name


My heart was pounding and body was fidgeting, indicative of the gravity of the impending moment. Nearly eighty people sat in a circle as large as the bright blue middle school gymnasium we were seated in.

Soon it would be my turn to introduce myself. Anxiety heightened as I mulled over how I would do it. I have introduced myself countless times before, but the usual, "My name is...this is what I do...this is why I’m here..." felt hollow. At this People's Institute's Undoing Racism workshop for people of color, I was invited into a nourishing space and encouraged to enter it fully. The question was, "Who are you?" and my answer, I had decided, would encompass me wholly: I was going to introduce myself with both of my names.
"My names are Fiona Teng and 鄧穎恆."
The stillness in the gym contradicted my pounding heart. My breath quickened and my folded hands tightened as I admitted to the group, "This is the first time I've ever introduced myself with both of my names.” The gym erupted into applause and cheers, tangling in my throat a knot of emotions that rendered me speechless. Many told me that it was nice to hear such ownership of one’s names; how beautiful my Chinese name sounded, rolling off my tongue with reclamation. They asked about the practice and politics surrounding the use of Chinese and English names in my native Hong Kong. Mostly, sensing my nerves, they congratulated me on what must have felt like a release—a liberating act of some kind. And they were right, though, at the time, I couldn’t yet articulate what I was liberating myself from.
For twenty-two years I had been conditioned to regard my Chinese identity—starting with my name—as a source of embarrassment and inadequacy.
I moved to the U.S. from Hong Kong when I was ten years old. It isn’t unusual for those in Hong Kong—a former British colony and a thriving business hub in Asia—to have English names in addition to their Chinese names. At a young age, students are expected to adopt English names in the classroom because they were more convenient as the language of instruction increasingly included English under British colonial influence. According to David Li, a linguistics professor at Hong Kong Institute of Education, “English teachers, including Cantonese-speaking English teachers, often feel [it] inconvenient if they had to switch to Chinese for the students’ names in English class. This is the reason why students are expected to adopt or to accept an assigned English name.” Outside of English class, English names stuck around. These names may be given at school by our teachers, at birth by our parents, or self-selected. In my family, every auntie and uncle in my parents’ generation have English names that they chose around elementary school age. Two of my cousins chose their own English names and two others go by their Chinese names. My sister and I were given our English names at birth. The use of names in Hong Kong, therefore, is fluid. Depending on whom I am speaking with and the setting we are in, I may be addressed by my Chinese or English name. Both, in all their formal and casual variations, unequivocally represent me. In professional settings, aside from falling in line with the common language of global commerce, English names offer a casual undertone generally not possible with the traditional ways in which Chinese names are used. Because addressing someone by their given Chinese name may denote personal intimacy or a hierarchical position within a social rank inappropriate in a business setting, English names figuratively set a level playing field for peers with no complexities to decipher or decode. Though with roots in colonial influence, having an English name in Hong Kong these days means more than a mere convenience: it is about expressing a pride, command, and creativity around our adopted language, demonstrated especially in the extra funky English names that Hong Kongers love.
During the cruel years of middle school, I learned that befriending the dominant culture of whiteness offered the difference between surviving and crumbling.
By comparison to the lightness and humor with which English names are casually chosen, it is often with extensive thought, advice, and collaboration that a child’s Chinese name is chosen. Between honoring familial lineage, setting aspirational qualities for the child’s future, and occasionally deriving too much meaning from superstition than it deserves, selecting the right Chinese name is serious business. My Chinese name is comprised of three characters and starts with my family name 鄧 (pronounced ‘Deng’ in Cantonese), followed by the second and third characters that together make up my given name 穎恆 (pronounced ‘Wing Hung’). These characters mean “intelligence” and “perseverance.” To demonstrate our generational relationship, my sister and I share the same third character while her second character differs to mean “courage.” Similarly, my father and his three siblings share the same family name and second character in their given names, only differing in the third. My father’s unique third character was specifically chosen by my grandfather who thought that a simple, four-stroke character would be easy to recall. He thought this would serve my father well should he elevate into the ranks of politics, that illiterate or less-educated villagers may still know his name. I now marvel at such thoughtful nomenclature as a reflection of the directness of the Chinese language to delineate relationships and the intentionality of well-wishing. But I wasn’t always so partial to such cultural traditions. During the cruel years of middle school, I learned that befriending the dominant culture of whiteness offered the difference between surviving and crumbling. To survive, I needed to fit in. To fit in, I needed to shed any indication that I was different. Not only did I stop using my Chinese name altogether, but because it was common practice to translate a Chinese given name into an English middle name, my full English name became the comically rhyming Fiona Ying Heng Teng. Feeling embarrassed, I dismissed my middle names, too. Gradually, my sister and I spoke in only English. Cantonese pop music, once our favorite pastime, now appeared cheesy. The move towards disowning my Chinese identities would be made easy since popular media readily presented laughable caricatures, offensive imitations, and flat stereotypes of Asian Americans if we were even visible at all. So when we were the butt of the joke, I laughed along. On the rare occasion that we made it into the ranks of whiteness, I quietly envied after such assimilation for myself. For twenty-two years I had been conditioned to regard my Chinese identity—starting with my name—as a source of embarrassment and inadequacy. Now, choosing to introduce myself with my Chinese name as an entry to reclaiming this identity was, and still is, a sorely vulnerable act. In the months leading up to the workshop, I obsessively rehearsed this introduction in my head. Each time, the reverberation of such a simple yet weighty phrase fed my confidence and crystallized a trust that speaking it out loud was not merely right, but was fundamentally true. I dreamed of the possible responses. What if no one understood? Or cared? I wondered when I would finally do it, what would it feel like? "My names are Fiona Teng and 鄧穎恆." And so it went, like a shot of my childhood injected into the cellular memory of my body, recalling that it had never really parted. Like hearing my affectionate childhood nicknames, varying depending on which guardian of the village was calling, coming, caring for me. Like the 9-year old devotion to Chinese calligraphy, the innocence of pop star crushes, and the sharp edges of being body-shamed. Like liberating little me from the captivity of fears and shame, freeing her to be however she damned well pleased. Like the aching bones of my absent father, my thick-skinned-tender-hearted mothers, and the-rock-to-my-soul sister. Like believing that my tongue is fluent enough. Eyes beautiful enough. Dance free enough. Body thick enough. Spirit wild enough. Words witty enough. Voice loud enough. I am good enough. Like undressing, stripping free of the colonizer’s gaze. Bare bodied, giving words to this mouth, sight to these eyes, roots to this child. I am 鄧穎恆.
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