The Footprints of a Name

How do international students negotiate their identities in intercultural transitions through choices of names?

(Animation made by me; click HD on the lower right corner for a high-quality view.)

“What’s your name,’ Coraline asked the cat. ‘Look, I’m Coraline. Okay?’

‘Cats don’t have names,’ it said.

‘No?’ said Coraline.

‘No,’ said the cat. ‘Now you people have names. That’s because you don’t know who you are. We know who we are, so we don’t need names.”

Neil Gaiman, Coraline

If you ask someone, who are you?, they will most likely answer with their name.

If you ask an international student with a name that is often difficult to pronounce for speakers from a different country as they are, they would reply, sometimes with an English name chosen themselves, sometimes with their “original” name. These choices, as natural and mundane as they might seem, reflect complex links between identities, names and naming practices, and intercultural transition.

We all have our names—last names, given names, nick-names, pet names, passed down onto us from previous generations, given to us by our parents, by our friends, by our partners. Behind our names is more than just personal taste or cultural habit: naming practices can go as far as to declare political and historical preferences in the case of Chinese Indonesian (Lie & Bailey 2017, p.80), or to express racial and national identification for first- and second- generation immigrants (Cohen & Kassan 2018, p. 134).

Names are “intimately linked with the ‘identity concerns’ of an individual or society” (Rymes 1996, cited in Thompson 2006, p. 188)

The identities that names invoke are not static, but ever-changing and fluid, morphing and shifting with the flow of communication and social interactions (Carbaugh 1996, cited in Lie & Bailey 2017, p. 83). An intrinsic part of our identities, our names are our dearest companions, voyaging with us through time and across space, and in many cases, across cultures. In these intercultural transitions, the names and choices of name of many individuals—in this case, of international students—play a vital role in their negotiations among their multicultural (and even multilingual) identities.

A person’s identity—or to be precise, constellation of identities (Oetzel 2009, cited in Jackson 2014, p. 132)—is a kaleidoscopic collection of their own reflective views of themselves and others’ perceptions of their self-images (Ting-Toomey 2005, cited in Samovar et al. 2009, p. 154; Marginson 2012). Identities are dynamic and multiple (Samovar et al. 2009, p. 155), and most importantly, they are constantly formed and reshaped and changed by external factors, maintained through one’s social interactions (p. 167).

“Through others we become ourselves” (Vygotsky 1997, cited in Jackson 2014, p. 130)

At one time, one carries and displays as many as ten different types of identities—age identity, gender identity, cultural identity, language identity etc. (Jackson 2014, pp. 136-154)—which complement and conflict with one another depending on our immediate circumstances and environment (Mort 1989, cited in Jackson 2014, p. 131).

Any individual has both their avowed identities and their ascribed identities (Jackson 2014, pp. 133-134). The former are the results of conscious and deliberate choices made to project intended self-images (say, a Chinese immigrant choosing an English name as he/she enculturates and acculturates into a new country), and the latter are images imposed on oneself by others (the same Chinese immigrant still being seen as a perpetual outsider by people living in said country).

And it is indeed a struggle to many—immigrants, international students, sojourners. A seventeen-year-old daughter of Chinese immigrant parents in America wrote in her essay, Orientation Day, that the ten years since she had set foot on her new homeland have witnessed a constant, irreconcilable battle between her Chinese heritage and her new American identity.

“’My name is Jennifer Wang,’ …. There are no other words that define me as well as those do. No others show me being stretched between two very different cultures and places—the ‘Jennifer’ clashing with the ‘Wang,’ the ‘Wang’ fighting with the ‘Jennifer.’” (Facing History and Ourselves 2018)

Intercultural transitions, for international students in this case, often come hand in hand with a sense of disorientation, confusion about one’s identity/identities, resulting in identity- or self-shock (Samovar et al. 2009, pp. 397-398; Zaharna 1989, cited in Jackson 2004, p. 191), when one’s existing knowledge and awareness of themselves is challenged, uprooted and replanted through a series of choices. These choices can either be passive or active—for example, in conversational situations, a native speaker complimenting a non-native speaker’s pronunciation and accent forces a “non-native identity” upon the latter (Jenks 2013, p. 165, p. 172), a passive choice the non-native person is forced to make. However, most of the time the choices are deliberately decided on by the international students, the journeys of whose names cross multiple language and cultural boundaries.

“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” ― W.C. Fields

The part of the selves of an international student that declares their own choices of names and identities is their agency. This agency takes charge of oscillating between two strategies of identity-reforming in intercultural transitions: hybridity and multiplicity (Marginson 2012). In hybridity, the student synthesises a new identity by choosing and blending multiple aspects from their identity back in their homeland and the one they form in their new country, creating a multi-faceted multicultural—and in many cases multilingual—identity. Meanwhile, multiplicity means the sojourning student “splits” themselves into various identities living various lives; for international students whose native language is not English, it is usually among language identities that they must negotiate.

Whether a student chooses an English name (or Anglicises their name) or keeps their original name, surprisingly, does not correspond with just one of these strategies. Looking deeper into stories of international students, one learns that each choice is a combination of both hybridity and multiplicity, and each reflects both avowed and ascribed identities.

HD, a Vietnamese student at UOW, shared a story similar to mine. We came to Australia from Vietnam, where our full names have letter combinations, tonal marks, and last-first name ordering all foreign and hard to pronounce for non-Vietnamese. HD, after trying out different English names, felt her Vietnamese name best reflects her identity and decided to use only her first and last names, put in the typical first-last name of English names. She had made peace with how her name might puzzle a non-Vietnamese, and she embraces it, looking back on all the name-related incidents with humour. To HD, a Vietnamese name does not prevent her to immerse in an English-speaking culture and does not means complete multiplicity; she still identifies as a bicultural and bilingual individual, and this combination of English formatting and Vietnamese originality of her name deeply reflects this.

“It was in my first politics class that I started to think seriously about having an English name. The tutor opened his class roll and started calling out names. Though he had carefully repeated each name twice, I couldn’t hear a single word that sounded like mine.

I couldn’t help but think: am I sitting in the wrong class? Is my English so terrible I can’t recognise my own name?” (Dao 2018)

Meanwhile, after such (now hilarious) name-related incidents, I have decided to go by both an English name and a Vietnamese name, and it helps that my English name (Mia) looks like it is a nick-namey version of my Vietnamese one (Minh-Anh). I made a point of signing all forms and correspondences (letters, postcards, emails, text messages) with both, in this format: Mia (Minh-Anh). This choice of doubling my name sometimes equals multiplicity, as most of my Vietnamese acquaintances would address me as Minh-Anh, while teachers and domestic students at university call me as Mia. However, my Vietnamese friends still very often (comfortably) call me by my English name, and some teachers uses my Vietnamese one: these identities are not separated but combined as one hybridised, bilingual, bicultural identity that I feel deeply.

“Names have power.”  ― Rick Riordan, The Lightning Thief

In their study of bilingual students, Lo-Philip and Park (2015, pp. 191-205) have found that complex interactions between diverse discourses encountered in the daily life of these students construct their divergent and multifaceted identities. Like multilinguals, international students actively negotiate among different and even contrasting discourses to construct their own self-concept. Their multicultural and multilingual backgrounds also help shape their view of the self as something flexible and not bound to any particular location or culture. In some cases, the students’ self-positioning as a bilingual shows their awareness of the advantage of bilingualism in intercultural interactions, as they can truly blend into another culture and community, even imagined communities (term coined by Anderson 1991, cited in Norton 2013, p. 8), where they feel a sense of connection to people they might have yet to meet.

Language learners, or international students, favourably construct their identities at will, combining and altering between their language identities (Tomoka 2014, p. 37). Names might have power over how one is perceived in a new land, but one also has their choices to control this power, to navigate among their kaleidoscopic identities, even to give themselves their own name.

(Animation made by me; click HD on the lower right corner for a high-quality view.)

Mia (Minh-Anh)



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