Source: Mar 21, 2010, The Sunday Times
Trend of using unique Westernised names reflects insecurity
Over the last 50 years, the names people choose for their children, and the names some people give themselves, have changed dramatically.
When my father was born in 1923, his family consulted a friend knowledgeable in choosing names. He suggested ‘Kuan Yew’, which means ‘brightness’ in Hokkien.
My great-grandfather was awed by the British and added ‘Harry’ to my father’s name. Because his name appeared as ‘Harry Lee Kuan Yew’ on his birth certificate, when he graduated from Cambridge University and later from Middle Temple, he could not persuade either institution to drop ‘Harry’ from his university degree or his certificate as Barrister-at-law.
In 1950, he managed to arrange for himself to be called to the Singapore Bar as just ‘Lee Kuan Yew’, sans ‘Harry’. ‘Lee Kuan Yew’ thus became his public persona. To this day, only family members and a few very close friends call him ‘Harry’.
My brothers and I have no ang moh name. My parents were not literate in Chinese when we were born, so my father approached a court interpreter he knew to give him some names to choose from.
My name, ‘Wei Ling’, means ‘the sound of tinkling jade’. My parents did not foresee that I would grow up to be a tomboy who would join the army cadets in secondary school, where my loud and resonant voice was deemed appropriate for a parade commander.
‘Wei Ling’ is a very common name for Chinese girls. When I try to sign up for electronic journals on the Internet, and the system prompts me for a user name, I try all possible permutations of my name, including ‘Li’, ‘Weiling’ or ‘Wei-Ling’. Alas, I invariably find they have all been taken by others. Exasperated, I would sometimes try ‘Lee Hsien Yang’, and the system would immediately accept it.
Throughout my years in school, from kindergarten to pre-university, all my friends had only Chinese, Malay or Indian names. When I was in medical school and during my early years of postgraduate training, the only Westernised names were the Christian names of those who were actually Christian.
By the late 1980s, however, non-Christian Chinese began to have Westernised names and often did not use their Chinese names at all. The trend was initially subtle and I had assumed that those with Westernised names were all Christians. It was only when I needed to write a cheque to a friend and I was told, ‘don’t include my Western name, just write ‘Tan Chee Beng” or whatever, did it dawn on me that the Western names were not official.
My brothers chose not to give their children any Western names. One nephew, when he was in school, asked his parents’ permission to adopt a Western name. His mother Ho Ching told him: ‘In China, only waiters and waitresses use Western names.’ My father also explained how ‘Harry’ became part of his name and how he tried to remove it.
To date, none of my nephews or niece has a Western name.
I trained in Boston from 1981 to 1984, and in Toronto in 1992. I kept my Chinese name throughout and told those who had difficulty remembering my name just to call me ‘Lee’.
To my close childhood friends and my family, I am just ‘Ling’. I still think ‘tinkling jade’ hardly reflects my nature. To those who know me, ‘Wei Ling’ perhaps conjures up a very different image from that of tinkling jade.
I am glad that Malays and Indians rarely give or adopt Western names – unless they are Christians, in the case of the Indians. I guess there is still a strong anti-colonial instinct in me that leads me to abhor any attempt by people in former colonies to adopt the names of their past colonial masters.
In the book The Narcissism Epidemic by Jean M. Twenge and
W. Keith Campbell, there is a chapter on ‘Uniqueness’. They write: ‘The biggest trend in baby names recently isn’t a particular name; it’s that fewer children receive common names.
‘The Social Security Administration has compiled a database of the names given to every American child born since 1879. Half the boys born in 1946 received one of the top 23 names. Back then, naming a child was about belonging and fitting in instead of uniqueness and standing out…
‘But over the last few decades, parents, tired of common names, wanted something unique for their children. At first it was a slow progression: As late as 1987, 3 per cent of boys were named Michael and 3 per cent of girls were named Jessica, with one out of five boys and one out of six girls receiving one of the 10 most popular names.
‘Then, during the 1990s, unique names caught fire and fewer and fewer children received the most popular name for their sex, and only one out of 11 boys and one out of 12 girls went by a name in the top 10…
‘Now it is considered better to stand out as an individual and be ‘unique’. In fact, 223 babies born in the 1990s in California were named Unique, with some parents putting teeth into it with names like Uneek, Uneque or Uneqqee…
‘Unique spellings are also trendy: Why name a child Michael or Kevin when they can be Mychal or Kevyn?’
The same trend can be observed in Singapore, especially among the Chinese. An example I came across recently here of a thoroughly made-up, ‘uneqqee’ name was ‘Evetor’.
I asked a Malay friend whether there has been a similar trend among Malay names. She replied: ‘Most Malay names have either Arabic or Sanskrit roots and some are drawn from Malay literature. When I was younger, many more Malays had simpler names. Now you find a whole generation growing up with multiple names, not just a simple Fatimah or plain Aminah. Instead, it will be Fatimah Nadia Trina, or Natasha Atiqa, et cetera.
‘What you will notice about these new fashionable names is that they are a blend of Western and Islamic names,’ my friend told me.
I view this new trend of choosing Westernised unique names as another example of the narcissistic epidemic. I feel that if you need a name to distinguish yourself, you or your parents probably have a chip on your or their shoulder, combined with a cultural inferiority complex.