For part of his time in Canada, Holland College student Thinh Nguyen was known as Andy.
Nguyen recently wrote an opinion piece in the Charlottetown Guardian newspaper about reclaiming his original Vietnamese name. CBC’s Island Morning invited him and two other immigrants to discuss what it means to anglicize your name when you come to Canada.
For Nguyen, that anglicization came before he even left Vietnam. He was in Grade 6 when an English teacher from outside the country came into the classroom and asked everyone in the class to choose an English name so he could easily pronounce them.
“I was a kid so I didn’t know anything better. I just went with the name Andy for so long without realizing that it doesn’t really sit right with me,” he said.
For years it just seemed like a normal thing to be Andy sometimes, but eventually he came to feel he was not Andy at all.
“My name Thinh, it’s my Vietnamese name, and it’s part of my identity. When I went to Canada to study I started to realize that. My identity kind of gradually goes away with my English name,” said Nguyen.
“It feels good to, kind of, reclaim my identity.”
‘Just go with CJ’
For Chijioke Amadi, who moved to P.E.I. from Nigeria 14 years ago, his anglicized name happened on the spur of a moment.
He was at UPEI with a professor trying to pronounce his name, who was having a very difficult time. Everyone was having a laugh about it.
“Because I have a really good sense of humour I was like, just go with CJ,” said Amadi, but the significance of that moment has grown for him over the years.
“What I didn’t really know then was I was trying to fit in, because that’s what society made me think, that my name was so hard to pronounce.”
Ironically, he found that going by CJ made it harder to fit in with his own community.
“The fact that I never used my real name made my community start veering away from me, rather than coming towards me,” he said.
“It makes you second guess who you are, what you are.”
Ally Guo, who came to P.E.I. from China six years ago, is in a much more complicated situation.
Ally is a homonym for her legal Chinese name, Aili, but it is not a spelling she adopted when she moved to Canada.
“That’s actually given to me by my father when I was born. So he’s given me both English name and Chinese name at the same time, and with the same pronunciation,” said Guo.
And both names have a particular meaning in her family. Chinese names often reference the parents’ hopes for the baby. Aili means youth and beauty, but Ally is a deliberate reference to the English word meaning friend or partner.
In the same tradition Guo has given her son two names, Shingyun, Chinese for golden star, and Octavian, after the Roman emperor.
Amadi and Nguyen said anglicizing your name can be about more than casually fitting in. They both know people who anglicize their names on their CVs, because they feel they will be more likely to get a call from prospective employers.
“In my community, I know it’s something that’s happening,” said Nguyen.
It has to be a personal choice whether you anglicize your name, all three agreed. Nguyen said some of his friends laughed at him for writing the column, saying a name doesn’t matter. Guo believes as P.E.I. sees more people from different places calling the Island home, things are bound to change.
“We’re a country of diversity and it contains different people from different communities. It’s natural, and it becomes more and more natural,” she said.