Saturday, November 29, 2014

What's in a name?

Since arriving in Australia, I've been asked a few times about my name. It's been on my to-blog list for ages, but I just never got around to writing about it. Since I'm on a plane back home at the moment with nothing else to do, I figure I might as well smash it out now.

For those who don't know, my name is Ho Hui Jan. Most people here in Malaysia call me Hui Jan. If they're particularly close to me, they'll shorten it to just Jan, which also happens to be my English name, if you will. My mother had the idea of including my English name in my Chinese name, which was excellent because that meant I wouldn't have to come up with an English name for myself if I went overseas.

Just a little side note: I used to get unfairly annoyed at Chinese people who gave themselves English names when they studied abroad; I was under the impression that they were being fake and trying too hard to integrate into white culture. Now, though, I understand and see how judgemental it was of me. Over the past two years, I've learnt that the majority of white people have trouble w/ Asian names (as well as faces, in some cases). It just makes life so much easier to give yourself a name they can remember and pronounce rather than try to explain for the umpteenth time how to say your name. However, there are people who stick to their original names, which I admire; more power to them!

Back to my name. It's a Chinese name, obviously -- 何慧娟 in Chinese characters. My surname is Ho, and though it isn't the most flattering, I've grown to stop hating it. I don't think '何' (Ho) has any real meaning as a word on its own, so we'll move on to '慧娟' (Hui Jan). '慧' (Hui) means 'intelligent', which I like; kid me felt like it seemed to make the effort to learn how to write it more worthwhile, almost like I was living up to my name. '娟', on the other hand, makes me cringe because it's a bit of a misnomer. My mother gave me the name, thinking it referred to the handkerchiefs covering ladies' faces in Chinese courts during some dynasty or other (but why would feminist me want to be named after that?). In reality, though, '娟' actually means 'beautiful and graceful', which is, um, not me either. The only thing I liked about it was how easy it was to write: a '女', then a '口', then a '月'. '慧', on the other hand, is a bit of a nightmare.

Funnily enough, I feel the opposite way towards the Anglicised version of my name: 'Jan' I like, 'Hui' I don't. 'Jan' is easy to spell, easy to pronounce, and doubles up as an English name; what's not to like? Oh, fun fact that seems to blow everyone's minds when I tell them: I was named Jan because I was born in January. (Why is that surprising? I've always thought it fairly obvious.) Anyway, I did have a slight problem with 'Jan' when I was younger, because it was a boys' name in Dutch (pronounced 'Yahn'). However, the Chinese version, '娟', has '女' ('female') as its bù shǒu, reassuring me of its femininity.

I don't like 'Hui' because it just isn't the easiest word to say; it feels clumsy in my mouth, and I used to dislike introducing myself because of it. It's also the most commonly mispronounced part of my name (though you'd be surprised by the number of ways 'Jan' has been butchered as well). It's meant to be pronounced 'Hwee', like 'we' with a 'h' sound before it. Often, though, Chinese people say 'Huey', like 'whey' with a 'h' sound before it, and I can't fault them because that's the Mandarin pronunciation of the word. It's also been pronounced 'Wee', 'Hue', 'Yoo', 'Hoo-ee' (close, but no cigar), and 'Hue-ee', among other interesting variations. Once, I was at an awards ceremony, and when the Irish emcee called out (what was meant to be) my name, it took awhile for me to recognise it as my own. Such is the mangling of my name in foreigners' mouths.

You can understand why I introduce myself in Australia as Jan Ho. This didn't start off as intentional, by the way. Sometime after I had given up introducing myself as Hui Jan -- I opted for just Jan instead -- I was asked my name by someone I was partnered with in Comm Skills. "Jan", I said confidently. Then she asked for my surname. "Ho," I replied. Looking down, I saw that she'd written 'Jan Ho' on the sheet of paper; Jan Ho I was, so Jan Ho I became.

I'll be honest, it took me awhile to get used to. I had been Ho Hui Jan my entire schooling life, so the ridiculously short Jan Ho tasted vaguely of injustice, like I was cheating myself out of my identity. Where was the 'Hui', the 'intelligence'? Where was my Chinese pride? Being the biggest banana I knew, did I ever even have any Chinese pride to begin with?

Annoyed, I sternly told myself that I had enough on my plate, and these two (rightfully three?) syllables didn't warrant that much soul-searching. In the end, it boiled down to only a few things:
1. What did I want people to call me? Jan.
2. Were people calling me Jan? Yes.
3. Wasn't 'Jan Ho' technically my name? Yes?

So Jan Ho I was.

Although, if we wanted to go by technicalities, my baptism certificate is an interesting example. I got baptised in Tasmania, and the pastor and elder I spoke to beforehand were both white. It was clear that some things were, um, lost in translation, shall we say, because the name on the certificate reads 'Jan Hui Ho'. When I first saw it I'd laughed. Technically, technically, it was right, only if you completely Anglicised my Chinese name -- 'Jan' was my first name, so that came first; 'Hui' was sort of my middle name, so that went in the middle; and 'Ho' was my surname, so that came last. If you'll notice, that's actually my real name reversed, which struck me as amusing. There's a metaphor in there somewhere, but I can't be bothered to look for it now.

So what's in a name? 'Plenty', you'd think, looking at the length of this post, but really, the answer is 'not very much at all'. Shakespeare was right. Whether you call me Ho Hui Jan, or Jan Ho, or Jan Hui Ho (please don't), it doesn't matter all that much in the end. Because that which we call a Jan, by any other name would smell as sweet.

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