April, or Xiaoyi? --A Discussion on Names and Culture

12/03/2015 16:20 GMT | Updated 10/05/2015 10:59 BST

"ZZzz...z-i-ao Yeee?"

"Here. Please call me April."

And here we go again. Admittedly, my given name is difficult for Westerners to pronounce. While most Chinese names are badly pronounced in terms of their tones, my name usually causes a even greater struggle, to such an extent that some of my course instructors, on the first day of class, would hold their breadth for a second, and then say "I will give this a try, but...apologies in advance if I say it wrong." or the equivalent. Some had even given up completely by addressing me as "the X person". Wow, sounds like a mysterious figure, surely. I can't say that I like it, though. My automatic response, stated in the second line of this entry, is the solution that I worked out.

This is a common approach employed by many of my fellow international students. Although I usually avoid generalising, I will generalise by saying that usually, ABCs (as well as ABJs, ABKs, etc.) tend to have Western first names as their official given names. Chinese-born-Chinese students, on the other hand, would have our Chinese names show up on the rosters. That's a simple rule of telling who's an ABC, and who's a CBC: a clear reflection of our identities.

The trend that I found is that people here are often more interested in asking the explicit question "Where are you from?" and its more implicit forms (e.g. "Which other languages do you speak?") to students who have non-Western first-names, when compared with ABCs' and the likes. It's sometimes hard to tell if people are genuinely interested in your native country, or are they asking a wealth of follow-up questions for other reasons (e.g. demonstrating that they are knowledgeable in foreign affairs, emphasising that they are not discriminating against foreigners, etc.) A name can really make one stand out from the crowd.

From the simple question about names, more questions of cultural significance could be raised. When asked if I'm comfortable with going by "April", I would say "yes". Is it a sad loss of cultural identity? A compromise to cultural norms where I surrender to the society I'm in? After all, I have friends who refuse to go by Westernised versions of their names. Although I understand their patriotic intention, I wouldn't mind. For me, Xiaoyi = April. April is my namesake month. "April" has her own equivalents in different languages. As someone who loves exploring foreign languages, I like having a name that could be directly translated in any language. It's my way of accepting different cultures, embracing them, and attempting to blend in.