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All Communities Roots and Culture

My name: Defining my personas, defying conformity

By Jerry Zhang

China traces its roots to the late 19th and early 20th centuries—a period marked by the aftermath of the Opium Wars. This era sparked significant debate in China surrounding the notions of “Westernization” versus “cultural preservation.” In works like renowned writer Lu Xun’s book The True Story of Ah Q, Western influence was often vilified, with individuals embracing the culture of the West derogatorily—labelled as “phony foreign devils,” reflecting a disdain for blind worship of foreign cultures.

However, since the 1980s, internationalization has led to the slow diffusion of the English language throughout Chinese society, according to a study titled Defining and Negotiating Identity and Belonging: Ethnic Name Change and Maintenance among First-Generation Chinese Immigrants. This was primarily driven by increased importation of Western media. This is due to the growing social importance and affluence associated with Western employment opportunities. The influence of English culture reached its peak in the 2000s, leading to the trend of an English name being associated with high social status.

I got my English name, Jerry, long before I set foot in Canada. As a child, I was captivated by the antics of the American cartoon series Tom and Jerry—the show is brimming with charm, creativity and slapstick comedy. My mischievous behaviour as a kid often earned me the moniker of “troublemaker” which, looking back, led to being associated with the character Jerry. During my kindergarten years in China, a teacher affectionately dubbed me as ‘Jerry,’ reflecting both my love for the cartoon and my knack for mischief. It was initially a playful nickname, but with the boom of the popularity of the English language in the 2000s, ‘Jerry’ slowly replaced my Chinese name which meant liveliness and blessings. 

My cultural name, which was carefully chosen and held deep symbolic meaning, began to fade into the background as ‘Jerry’ took centre stage. Eventually, my parents started introducing me as Jerry at social gatherings. Despite being known to the world as Jerry, I was still called my Chinese name within my family. However, when I moved to Canada, what started as a childhood nickname evolved into my identity as an immigrant—a symbol of shifting perceptions and circumstances.

I found myself navigating between two worlds, each language conjuring a distinct persona

During my early days in Canada, I recall meeting the school principal on my first day of grade four. When he asked for my name, I replied with “Jerry” without hesitation. I didn’t realize the significance this choice would have. Over time, the name Jerry evolved from a mere nickname to my identifier—like a lingua franca mask. While my Chinese name remained the foundation of my heritage, ‘Jerry’ became my gateway to Western society, a linguistic bridge connecting me to my new environment. 

Everywhere I went, I was often asked “What’s your Chinese name?” As time progressed, I became reluctant to answer the question, in part due to its pronunciation. My name is in a register that does not exist in the Indo-European language branch. Most of the time, people just pronounce it like the word ‘sushi.’ Most of my good friends would jokingly call me ‘sushi’ as a harmless joke—ironically stressing the complexities of cultural assimilation. 

Studies conducted at Stockholm University’s Centre for Research on Bilingualism suggest that switching between languages can evoke varied emotional responses and social behaviours. The way someone communicates in their native language may reflect cultural nuances and values, shaping their personality accordingly. I found myself navigating between two worlds, each language conjuring a distinct persona. 

Ultimately, ‘Jerry’ became more than a name—it embodied my adjustment to Canadian life. It illustrated the blurring lines between identity and assimilation and furthered dissonance of my identities, feeding into this narrative of the perpetual foreigner. 

This concept is observed even when considering cases like Pizza Hut’s rebranding of its first store in China in 1990. After market research, Pizza Hut established its first restaurant in China, localizing its recipes such as reducing its emphasis on cheese due to dietary preferences,  according to a case study published on Studocu. Also, it positioned itself as a higher-tier dining experience to resonate with Chinese consumers and differentiate itself from other Western fast food, according to the case study. 

This strategic adaptation was extremely successful and emphasized the pivotal role of cultural importance when navigating a foreign land. While many may attribute the adoption of new names to the pressures of assimilation, the ability to adapt remains a fundamental aspect of human survival. Loss of identity is a concern, but as long as individuals remain connected to their origins, their identity endures.

I’ve developed a stronger understanding of both my Chinese and Canadian identities

Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote in his book titled Anathemas and Admirations, “It is no nation that we inhabit, but a language. Make no mistake; our native tongue is our true fatherland.” This sentiment underlines the critical connection between identity and language. Name as a bridge between the two, thus prompting some immigrants to grapple with the decision of adopting a new name. 

An acquaintance of mine initially chose an English name because she thought it was cute but was suggested a more serious name by our school principal and adopted it onwards. Decisions like these reflect the nuanced dance between personal choice and societal expectations in the immigrant experience. The practice of adopting a new name among immigrants varies from shortening names for ease of adaptation to wholly embracing an entirely new identity to donning a new name entirely. 

I recognize the role of ‘Jerry’ as a separation from my Chinese identity. However, it’s essential to recognize that individuals have the autonomy to shape their identities, regardless of external linguistic influences. 

As I get older, I’ve developed a stronger understanding of both my Chinese and Canadian identities. I now recognize their distinct boundaries and functions, yet I also find myself seamlessly integrating them in various cross-cultural situations—they’ve intertwined into one another, shaping my experiences in enigmatic ways. 

While anglicizing one’s name may not guarantee success in acculturation, the challenge of finding one’s belonging in Canada is definitely a struggle for an immigrant. The difficulty of reconciling the diverse aspects of both identities is a hardship that many diasporas can empathize with. However, despite the challenges, the experience of navigating these dual identities will ultimately shape one’s understanding of themselves.

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