Thursday, May 14, 2009

A rose by any name

Had a chance encounter with a secondary school classmate this week. When she recalled my name, it was the "han4 yu3 pin1 yin1" [汉语拼音] version. Then it struck me that I go by different names, depending on when and where one met me.

1. For the 1st decade or so of my life, I was known by my name at birth -- what is known in Singapore as the "dialect name" for Chinese.

2. When I hit secondary school, the "Speak Mandarin" (informally "eliminate dialects") campaign came to its peak. All school children were known by their modern Chinese phonetics name -- what is known in Singapore as the "Hanyu Pinyin" name for Chinese. Through compulsory government policy, I acquired a name that sounded strange to my ears due to the way my Hanyu Pinyin name was mispronounced in English.

3. After secondary school, the "Speak Mandarin" campaign softened. For the next decade or so, I was addressed by my dialect name once again. Nevertheless my name in Chinese characters and my Hanyu PinYin name were appended in brackets on almost all official documents. Thanks again to government policy.

4. During my active volunteer years, people addressed me as "Miss [my-family-name-in-dialect]". It started out mainly to put "some years" between me and my teenage charges. Apparently, I was the only volunteer blessed with this privilege of going by an honorific because I wasn't much older than my charges when I first started, and with my petite size, I could have passed-off as one of them. :-P

5. At work, I had been asked regularly if I had an "English" name. For a Singaporean Chinese, an "English" name refers to a single-worded name that is typically in common use in English-speaking countries. This name is usually prefixed or postfixed to one's dialect name. Thus I adopted one for the next decade or so.

6. When I was planning for a career change, I considered changing my name for better luck. After much ado, I decided to remove all traces of names assigned to me officially by government policies and revert to my original name at birth. This is in respect for my dad's effort and careful consideration in naming me.

Thus I am back to my name at birth. Some like it, others have not caught on and still address me by any of the above.

"A rose by any name smells as sweet"
- Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 1594.

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