Home, Archive, Stuff, Random thoughts, London, My Rigs, Pictures, Dreams, Links, About, Contact, Search

spikegifted - Chinese

A Chinese in the West, Chinese Names

A Chinese in the West

For those who don't know, I'm Chinese. Well, ethnically, I'm Chinese. While I wasn't born anywhere close to China nor do I hold a passport issued by the authorities from China or Taiwan or any of the SARs (Special Administrative Regions, like Hong Kong) and I've spent a majority of my life living in Western civilizations, I'm still Chinese. You can't really mistake it, all you have to do is take a look at me. Even if you may not be able to identify immediately that I'm Chinese, you can definitely tell I'm an Asian.

So, what does it mean to be a Chinese living in the West? Well, the simply answer is: I don't know. There are millions of ethnic Chinese living all over the world, there is no single way to describe what it is like to be a Chinese living as a minority in the host country. There is a whole spectrum of attitudes and recognition of 'Chineseness'. I don't want to 'pigeon hole' people for the sake of generalization, but there is a need to draw some convenient observations to make the argument easier... There are those who are born and bred or brought up as 'Westerns' and probably have no understanding of China nor want nothing with it. There are those who emigrated to the West and fully embraced Western culture. There are those who emigrated to the West and longing to be in China instead, but are attracted to the benefits of the West. Finally, there are those who hold Western passports as a form of safety net - if things don't work out, they can always leave. This list is clearly unsatisfactory, since I can't even find a category to fit myself into. However, it is a convenient way to break up a myriad of of attitudes.

It is unfortunate that I can't fit myself into a category from the list that I've created, but that is just to illustrated the difficult for any immigrants, or those who are born outside of their ethnic origins, have about their 'identity'.  Certainly, I don't think I've any conflict of loyalty as I've no loyalty towards China, (I'm using it as a collective term for the People's Republic of China (PRC, 'Mainland') and the Republic of China (RoC, 'Taiwan')) and I think I'll pass Norman Tebbit's Cricket Test with flying colors. However, I am keen to keep up with developments in the region and am interested in understanding the psychic of those who live there. However, loyalty to one country doesn't mean that I can't be concern about developments of the place where many of my relatives still reside.

During my teenage years and my early twenties, I tried very hard to be as Westernized as possible. Consciously and sub-consciously, I worked hard to be as 'un-Chinese' as I could be - I ate Western food and I thought Western thoughts; I distanced myself from other Chinese or other Asians and if I interacted with them, English was the medium of communication. I would identity myself as being British and stopped there. However, there was something missing. It wasn't a question of loyalty, as I've mentioned before. Instead it was a force within myself to seek my own roots. I'm not suggesting that all ethnic Chinese go through this nor would I expect them to. This, for me, is highly personal. It is something that I discovered and I don't expect others to be forced into doing. It may have been a number of different things. However, they can be summarized into the following: family values, attitude towards others (especially family members and people from a older generation), attitude towards education, 'face' ('respect'), etc. These are highly conceptual and they can usually be identified as, as Westerners would call, 'conservative ideals'. It is convenient for me to say these are Chinese attitudes for it is something I can relate to and I've experienced first hand when I was a child. You can put another label on them if you so choose to.

It was as if I was searching for something to make me whole - the more I try not to identify with it, the more I felt something was missing. There wasn't a flood gate being opened or anything dramatic, but in trying to seek the 'something that is missing', I returned to cultural ideas that I have been exposed to previously but tried very hard to remove myself from. It was as much a journey of discovery as anyone who's new to a culture would expect. Since I didn't have Asian friends (I still don't really have Asian friends) and I chose not enlist the help of my family or friends of family, I started tentatively on my little adventure.

Just how does someone go about immersing (or re-immersing) in another culture that is not part of daily life? That was the problem I was trying to get around. As it turned out, it was Hong Kong Chinese movies that give me the easiest solution. Ok, I recognize that movies are not 'real world'. However, it did two thing for me - it made me listen to Cantonese and it gave me some hint of the popular culture in Hong Kong at the time of the making of the movie. So I was entertained and managed to learn something in my spare time. However, anyone would be able to tell you, movies are not the real world and I can only agree with that observation. Therefore, an alternative has to be found to 'reconnect' me with the world in which my parents live and one that I spend much of my childhood in. For the next step, I asked my parents (who still live in Hong Kong) to mail me the daily editorial of one of the most reliable newspaper in Hong Kong, Ming Pao. The editorials was my window into the political, social and cultural developments in both Hong Kong and China. Additionally, by reading these newspaper cuttings, I was able to practice reading Chinese, not something I would otherwise do, being located in an English-speaking environment.

However, being a little rusty with Chinese written language (as Cantonese have spoken words that are not real Chinese words), I also requested the English editorial of Ming Pao, which appears the day after the Chinese version is published, so that I can compare the two. To add to that, my parents collected cuttings from Hong Kong's two English newspapers - South China Morning Post and Hong Kong Standard. Now that most of the important newspapers are present on the internet, I can go to the site of those newspapers and others - notably, Apple Daily and Sing Tao Daily - to keep myself relatively up to date with the events in Hong Kong.

Interestingly, having gone through the process of reintroducing myself to Chinese (well, Hong Kong, anyway) culture, I feel a longing to be more in contact with my extended family. Being in contact with my immediate family is something that is taken for granted. However, being in touch with one's extended family is quite different. I'm not particularly concern by my relatives from the older generation (my parents' generation), although I've all the respect for them and I'd always have time for them. It is my various cousins that I'm most keen to connect with and I think I'm doing a relatively good job keeping in contact with a good number of them (I've quite a few cousins...)

I feel I've come a full circle (well, big part of the circle anyway) - To begin with, I tried to be as 'Westernized' as possible. Then I discovered that being 'Westernized' doesn't make me feel complete. That led to an effort to reintroduce and reconnect myself with the Chinese culture and values. And now, having rediscovered my ethnicity, I feel happier. However, at the same time, I feel I would have a distance to those who are in Hong Kong and to the events that take place there.

Having spent over 20 years living in 'Western' culture, I think I'm fully 'Westernized' and I'm happy and comfortable with this environment. However, having reconnected with my ethnic origin to some degree, I feel 'whole'. So, while I'd never be a Chinese as someone who holds a Chinese passport and swear loyalty to China, I'd always be a Chinese in the West.

Back to top

Chinese Names

What's in a name? For most Westerners, Chinese names are rather mystifying. Chinese names tend to have deep meanings and most families spend a great deal of effort to make sure that the name given to their newborn is 'just right'. You may be thinking - What's the big deal? Well, there's a saying in Chinese: "It doesn't matter if you're born into a bad life, but it is even worse if you're given a bad name." For those who care, and that means most families, name giving is a serious business and it is a big deal!

The majority of Chinese have two names other than their surname, in the format of [surname] [name] [name]. There are lots of people with just one name after their surname, but they're in the minority. There's no such thing as a 'middle name' - the concept doesn't really exist. Chinese parents (or grandparents) name their off-springs with great care and consideration. Since there are no 'Christian names' in Chinese, names are simply another word (or character). Of course, there are some very obvious combinations that are common, but if the family wants to expressive, all kinds of meanings can be attached to the child's name. For those families who favor the format of surname followed by two names, usually one of the latter names (usually the one immediately followed the surname, but not all the time) will be carried by all members of the same sex in that generation, sometime both sexes, depending on the meaning of the word. There are some very traditional families who have family poems. The name carried by the generation will either be obtained or be derived from the poem. For some families, obtaining the right name is so serious that once they've figured out just the right name, they take the name to the temple to be checked and blessed.

Instead of working on a hypothetical basis, let's look at a real-life example. I'd use my Chinese name, since I'm rather intimate with it I can give you a fuller description (I hope). This is my name in Chinese:

On my birth certificate, since it is not a Chinese one, it is written as 'Siu Shing Wan'. This, of course, is an approximation of the Cantonese pronunciation, as it is difficult to accurately reproduce Cantonese pronunciation using English phonetics (unlike Mandarin). To make things more confusing, in any given dialect, the same sound can be a number of different words. And to make things near impossible for those who're learning Chinese, the same word can have a number of different meaning and a number of different tones, depending on the context. So, what do these characters mean? Does it mean 'Benjamin Siu', my Christian name followed by my surname? What kind of a surname is 'Siu' anyway. If you follow the links on each of the characters, you'd find that 'siu' can mean gloomy, 'shing' can mean receive and one of the mean of 'wan' is luck or in some context transport. However, that is a complete incorrect interpretation of a name, boarding on illiterate.

Even worse, it is entirely possible to have my name made up of different characters with the exact same pronunciation in Cantonese!

So my name can mean burning (or burnt), city (or town), fortune (or luck)!! First of all, it doesn't make any sense, even though this sounds identical to my name. Secondly, and I think more importantly, it is an insult - not just to the person who bears the name, but also to the person who gave the name. All the care and consideration is wasted on illiterate interpretation. If you're a student of a Chinese dialect, you'd realize this one of the easiest pitfall - assuming the use of a particular word without considering the context. It angers me that even some Chinese fail to see this point - if you don't know or not sure about a word in a name, ask and find out. It can make a world of difference, all it needs is an additional minute to make the enquiry.

Like many Chinese surnames, 'Siu' actually originated back in ancient China. As far as I know, it was in the beginning of the 'Spring and Autumn' period (c770-256BC). 'Spring and Autumn' (and the subsequent 'Warring States') was a time when feudal states were actually more powerful than the ruling dynasty (Chow) and these feudal states had a habit of going to war against and/or amongst each other. 'Siu' was one of these fiefdoms that dotted around China. To go back a little further, the ancestor of 'Siu' was given a piece of land as a result of being loyal to his feudal master.

Now that the easy part is out of the way, the surname, lets get to the rest of my name. By itself, the word 'shing' can mean receive or accept and in
conjunction with other characters can mean a number of things. (see link on the word) 'Wan' can mean either transport or luck or fortune, depending on context, and a variety of meanings, depending on usage along with other words. Still my name means next to nothing. The nearest meaning you can derive from these two words is: 'receive luck/fortune'. That's not bad... Did my granddad, who gave me my name (and those for my cousins with the surname 'Siu'), want me to receive good fortune. Not quite. I'm not suggesting names of other Chinese are as difficult to interpret, but mine (and my cousins') is one of the less easy.

To get the full meaning of my name, given by my granddad, you have to understand the origin of name. It actually made up the phrase, in the form of a prose, said by the royal announcer before he read out the emperor's message:

You get that? Now, I'm not a scholar in ancient Chinese literature and I wasn't that good at it when I was studying it back at school, hence my understanding of this is not complete. As far as I know, the above phrase means: "By the good fortunes received from god, the emperor calls on your promise..." I don't have a dictionary of Chinese quotes, so I can't check this up and simply looking up the meaning of each of the word/character will not give an accurate interpretation. If anyone happens to know better, please let me know.

With a name like that, did my granddad want me to be particular blessed? The truth is, I don't know. I would like to think so, but since he's not around any more, I can't find out for sure. However, he also gave very meaningful names to his other grandchildren in the Siu family, I'm sure he had his reasons. Since my granddad had quite a few sons (seven in total), I can only assume that he thought it was reasonable to give enough names to at least a majority of his grandchildren. The following are names of my cousins who bear the surname 'Siu':

The names in the above list are those for John (SeaTiger), Bernard, Constance and Jessie, respectively. Notice that the first of the names are the same for all the boys and again the same applies to those for the girls. Needless to say, each and every one of them is full of rich meaning and I can go on and on about the background to each of them. However, it may be more suitable to do that in another place, another time. The purpose of this short page is to explain to non-Asian readers of this page/site the background to Chinese names and I just happen to use mine as an example. The sounds of Chinese names may not make sense to non-Chinese speakers, but they still deserve respect.

Back to top