Seeing the world through my names

Janet is not even my real name.

I adopted this English name when I was 20 years old. My first English teacher at a university in Taiwan was a plump American lady. In out first lesson, she insisted that all her Chinese students should have an English name.

Having an English name is trendy to many foreign learners. Young Chinese people particularly like to be called John or Mary when they learn English. Having an English name does not mean that we kowtow to the western culture, as some conservative Chinese people worry that abandoning our original name equals to a loss of our identity. I don’t think so. Having a foreign name is just fun. The silliness is part of the experience of learning English as a foreign language.

Adopting an English name

I told my American teacher that I did not need an English name, as my name on the passport was in Latin alphabet letters, so it was my English name. She replied that my name given by my parents was too difficult to pronounce, and to an American, my name did not sound English. My English name on my documents throughout my life was a transliteration of my Chinese name. My teacher explained that she wanted a common English sounding name such as Lucy and Mary.

I was a bit annoyed that I had to create a new English name. I did not protest. No one protested. I did not see it as an invasion of my culture. I did not perceive name-changing as an ‘arrogant western culture encroaching on the 5,000 years of glorious Chinese civilisation’. I did not see it as ‘yet another fine example of American Imperialism and its brianwashing mechanism on the Chinese.’ I just thought my American teacher was stupid. She could not even pronounce my name. She did not bother to try. Most of my classmates already had their fancy English names. That evening, a lovely exchange student from Holland came to my rescue. She picked the name Janet for me, as I reminded her of her best friend Janet.

Since then, I am stuck with the name Janet.

Cloud -- Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth Harbour, England

Cloud — Gunwharf Quays, Portsmouth Harbour, England

Being  a Cloud

Currently, I have four names, which I use in different settings. My family still call me my original Chinese name, meaning Jade Cloud. Why Cloud? I bet my four sisters had taken all nice names, starting with our first name Jade, followed by Glory, Beauty, Grace and Wisdom. I’m the fifth daughter and I was given Cloud. Someone has to be a Cloud.

Cloud is actually poetic and elegant. I love it. My name Cloud 雲 is formed with two compound ideographs, rain 雨 and cloud 云.

You will not be surprised that I love the poem, I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud (or known as Daffodils) by William Wordsworth:

“I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.”

Donkeys in Roundhill the New Forest, England

Donkeys in Roundhill, The New Forest, England

Are you defined by your name? How does your name reflect you personality? Traditionally, some Chinese parents gave their children very humble names, such as “Cat, Dog, Pig, Ox, Donkey and Monkey”.

Names of low status

In the old agricultural society, when disease, disaster, and death were common, human life was at the disposal of the elements, or the unknown Heaven. Parents wanted to protect their children from misfortune. Animals are rough and tough and they have the fighting spirit to survive adversities. Animals are not picky eater; they eat the leftover food. Chinese people believed that if the kids were called Cat, Dog, Pig, Ox, Donkey and Monkey, they would overcome hardship.

Actually, using these humble names is a ploy. Parents deceive ghosts and evil spirits, who cause disease, disaster, and death. A child with a humble name can escape the attention of the evil spirit, and Yama, God of Death, will ignore this child by not taking away his spirit.

Evolution of the character, Cloud, in Chinese

Evolution of the character, Cloud, in Chinese

I remember when I was growing up, I, as a Cloud, played with some Dog, Cow, and Pig in my neighbourhood. A few years ago, I tried to do an oral history from my mother, and most of the male members in her stories carried animal names, and my mother does not know their real names. It was a hard job for me not to confuse cousin Dog with cousin Pig.

In my post, Born as an outsider, I wrote about how awkward I was as a left-hander. Throughout my life, I’ve learnt to adjust myself in new situations, to avoid touching people’s elbows or getting into people’s ways. My name Cloud was frozen in a particular time of my life. My adjustment never ends. Acquiring new names means subtly adapting to new values or identities that each new name carries. New names also open up new opportunities. Life is a journey of constant adjustments, which brings both joy and discomfort.

This post was inspired by Blog Exercises:
What’s the View Through Your Binoculars by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

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21 thoughts on “Seeing the world through my names

  1. ShimonZ

    This is a fascinating post, Janet. I enjoyed learning of your early adventure in English culture and receiving an English name. In our culture, the name is very important. In fact, our sages said that though prophesy stopped after the destruction of the holy temple, the very last trace of prophesy continues with the giving of names. When I learned English, I had an experience similar to yours. The teacher, and Englishman, said, Shimon is Simon in English. My classmates said, but Simon is Simple Simon, and Shimon is not so simple. We’ll give him a nickname. They immediately started calling me by my nickname, and I accepted this for a couple of years. It was a nice name, but it wasn’t me. It was just one side of me. And I went back to the name my parents had given me. There is still one friend of mine alive, from those days… and he sometimes calls me by that nickname… once in a while.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Shimon,

      Your ‘Simon’ story is rather amusing. It’s interesting how my American teacher and your English teacher both expected us to change our names to suit them. Of course there is a huge distinction between Simple Simon who met a pieman going to the fair and our teacher, Shimon. For me, my ‘nickname’ has followed me since and I can’t shake it off anymore. I’m fine with it.

      I’ll come back for another post about the importance of name. Thank you for sharing your thought with us.

  2. snowbird

    What an interesting post. It must be strange still being called Janet. I think the name Jade Cloud is absolutely beautiful, I think I would want to always keep that.
    I love the evolution of the character, Cloud, in Chinese and those lovely little donkey’s.xxxx

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      I’m glad you find this post interesting. I do like my name. I’ve added the URL to the Evolution of Character website on the image. I found the link via this wonderful website for Traditional Chinese Characters, Learning Traditional Chinese Characters.

      The donkeys — they were wandering on the field (or we were camping on their field) where we camped a few years ago. They were very determined. One morning they entered our tent — and stole our food.

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  4. fisefton

    We have a few Chinese volunteers where I work and, having lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years, I always try to pronounce their names as they have put them on their application forms. When they come in for a visit before they make the final decision as to whether or not to volunteer, I often say “I’m sorry, how do you pronounce your name?” They often say, “oh call me … [Their English name]” It’s nice but sometimes I think it would be nice to try to use their Chinese name after all we expect them, and you, to pronounce ours when we go to China.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Cantonese has more tones, so it’s more difficult to pronounce Cantonese names. I’m struggling sometimes.

      It is quite common that we call our Chinese friends their adopted English names too. I think the western influence is just so strong that we just use English for convenience. Also, Chinese has more characters than sounds, so when you tell someone your Chinese name, you will have to explain. For example, if a lady is called ‘Yingmei’, she will probably explain that her name is Yingmei, and the Ying is the particular character Ying for Britain or Hero, and Mei is the particular character for Beauty. Because there is a layer of explanation to do, sometimes people take the short cut and just use English.

  5. Maxim Sense

    “Life is a journey of constant adjustments, which brings both joy and discomfort.” Lovely quote. I love it. And very nice post too, as always. You have an interesting life notebook, Janet.

  6. marymtf

    I like Wordsworth’s poem too. And I like your story very much. Jade is a favourite colour and stone. I think Jade Cloud is a lovely combination.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you Mary.

      The poem is lovely. I visited the Lake District as a student many years ago just for his daffodils. A beautiful poem really transcends language.

      I love the mood in my name too.

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  9. gigiwellness28

    My English name has the same meaning of my Chinese name and they show on my Birth Certificate. You may find it a bit wired, but not to our family, because my late Grandpa had English names (same initials as his Chinese name, yes I said initialS, because he had two English names at the same time). He was born in 1899 and he was a full Chinese… Go figure that out ;-D

    You are such a lucky person – to develop your left handed abilities. One of my sisters was born left handed, but in those days, Chinese thought left handed people are bad (in what way I have no idea!), so my Mum forced my sister to use her right hand instead. Same case happened to one of my younger cousins. Turned out they both struggled a bit in their studies 😦

    I had a friend, who is also left handed and her parents also forced her to use right hand. Since both of my sister and cousin struggled in their studies, so I was very impressed when I realised she no only can write perfectly by her right hand, but also her left hand. Then she explained, her mother would erased her homework until she had nice handwriting, so she had decided to master her right hand’s ability, while secretly trained her left hand as well. What a smart girl!!

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for sharing so much information about your family history. Wonderful! Your Grandpa’s English names are the most intriguing. I wonder if it was to do with religion, such as western missionaries.

      I’m born left-handed, though I’ve been forced to write with my right hand — writing is the only thing I can do with my right hand — I handle everything else with my left hand.

      It was a common practice to force a left-hander to become right-handed. The argument was that left-handedness was ‘wrong’, or somehow ‘evil’, and I think parents wanted their children to have an easier life, not to stand out, not to be teased. Left-handedness was seen as a deformity. Luckily now people are more open-minded.

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  12. Hari Qhuang

    Your name is cloud! I had never known anyone who has such a name. 😀 I love it!
    Like most Indonesian Chinese folks, I have 2 names. My Chinese name is the one shown as my blog thumbnail (輝). My Indonesian name (or legal name) is the one known by my readers, Hari. 😀
    Some of my friends have the same Chinese and legal names. The difference is, their legal names are registered as Latin letters. It is actually something unpopular and not recommended. I think you can tell why (from our previous discussion).

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      I’m sure you could write a blog post about your names! I remember my Indonesian Chinese friends used their Indonesian names too, though they also have their Chinese names. It must have been so tough for them — they looked Chinese, but they couldn’t speak Chinese in Taiwan. In those days, people didn’t have a lot of understanding and my friends must have felt cut off.

      Chinese has an old saying that a great man ‘Does not change his name when he walks or sits down’, which signals the importance of our names (行不改名,坐不改姓- xíng bù gēng míng,zuò bù gǎi xìng) and names should not be changed. However, the people in the previous generation in your country were forced to abandon their Chinese names. This story is a huge topic with significant historical events and I believe the world needs to know about it.

      1. Hari Qhuang

        It is a very interesting topic, isn’t it? I will try to write about it. Let’s see if I can write about such a big topic well! 😀

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