How many of us have asked Maggie the East Asian, 'what's your real name?' How many of us have thought it, but not asked it? How many of us have tried to persuade Maggie that 'Wing Hong is a nice name' and that she should not be afraid to use it? Well, I am here to explain why Maggie is called Maggie.
There is a massive problem with the question 'what's your real name?' or 'what's your name on your ID?' I've had many people ask me that in an unknowing, though not impolite, way. But how do people know that my name, Ann, is not my 'real' name? How do they know that it is not written on my birth certificate? The fact is, they don't; and they don't really have the right to make that judgment.
I once had someone adamantly insist that my real name was surely something else. I replied a little mockingly: "This might sound a little crazy... but Ann is my real name. I didn't give you some sort of 'fake' name."
The same person recounted to me how he had once met a Vietnamese woman called Jennifer. He told us how he was not sure if Jennifer was really her name, or if it was a translated pronunciation of her Vietnamese name. "But of course, I couldn't really ask her that," he said. No, he could not, and he really should not have been mentally questioning her name either. At that point, I just broke in and told him that maybe - just maybe - her name was Jennifer!
The problem with questioning someone's name is that it dispossesses them of their name, which is as real as anyone's, and essentially their identity. I reckon the majority of people have not had someone not believe that their name was, in fact, their name. But I can tell you that the feeling is not a great one - actually, it sucks a lot. Why are people questioning the legitimacy of the name that mah mamma gave me? Why is my identity put into question? Who am I in the eyes of other people? I start to question myself.
The name problem goes a little further when people assume that you have given yourself an English name because you were dissatisfied or ashamed of your 'real' name. Someone told me almost patronisingly, but "Cheuk Ling (pronouncing it horribly as 'Chuckling') is a great name!" Yes it is. But not when you say it like you do in English. I love my Chinese name. I really do. It means 'very quick-witted'. Unfortunately, it just does not have quite the same value and fluency in English.
Many East Asians do not have a 'real' name and a nickname as many people believe, instead they have two separate names, both equally 'real'. Many have both names included in their birth certificates. In my case, both my names are mashed together as 'Cheuk Ling Ann Yip' on my formal identification. This has resulted in awkward situations where institutions have referred to me as 'Cheuk' - I choose to ignore such correspondences most of the time. For others, whose 'formal' names depend on whatever language the formal identification is, their lives are made much easier.
What about those whose English names are not part of their formal identification? Needless to say, it is still rude to question someone's name - unless it is for official reasons. Who is to say what someone's name is, or what they should be called? Perhaps they don't like the sound of their name on an English-speaking tongue. Perhaps they want to integrate better in the English-speaking community.
At the end of the day, it is all about respecting people's choices. Maggie chooses to be 'Maggie' and not 'Wing Hong'. Both my parents and I have decided that my name in English is Ann. There really should not be any doubts about it.