Why I Changed My Name

Having a translation as your name sucks.

Shyu, Pei Hsuan.

The substitute teachers always had trouble with that one. Usually, I was slouching in my chair, pretending to read a book or fiddling with some homework acting all nonchalant, all the while hyperaware of where she was on the attendance list. Acting like I didn’t care when the other kids snickered as my name was butchered.

Most people get it wrong. And why wouldn’t they — it’s a translation, not a name. Pei is maybe straightforward enough, but Hsuan? What is that? (Thanks, whatever immigration officer decided that was passable English).

My full Chinese name is 徐珮瑄. It’s a derivative of the middle character of my mother’s name, 玉, which means jade. My name essentially means a very beautiful jade, but they are not common words, and you usually only see them as part of people’s names.

I love that about the Chinese language — so, so many words created not because we really needed them but because there are never enough words to describe the beautiful things in the universe. Chinese is not a stingy language.

I love my Chinese name. My mother’s favourite high school teacher picked it out, and it forever connects me to my mother and my twin sister (we share the Pei bit).

I spent a few months during grade school attending public school in Taiwan (Mom was trying to make sure we didn’t forget Chinese) and I loved my name when I was there. Business books will tell you that people love the sound of their own name, and that was true when everyone called me 珮瑄. (Actually I loved it when people called me 徐珮瑄 too, I never understood why being called by your full name was bad — it’s a wonderful reminder that you’re part of a thing, part of a family.)

But I didn’t feel that way about Pei Hsuan. The variations bothered me too — was I Pei Hsuan or Pei-Hsuan or Peihsuan? (I have documents with each of those names). I like meeting new people, but I always dreaded introducing myself. What? They always said. Can you spell that? (That just confused them more.)

What a terrible thing, to feel like you have to apologize for having a hard-to-pronounce name.

There it is, then: I changed my name because I was embarrassed by its inconvenience.

One of my good friends from high school used to call me Patience because it sounds kind of like Pei Hsuan (well, he still does). So when I graduated, I decided to go as Patience. I like the word patience, I think it sounds pretty, and it’s meaningful to me because while I would like to have some more of it, I have very little. My Mom liked it too, and though she passed away before I decided to change my name, I don’t think she would have minded.

Sometimes people ask me about Patience. They say my parents must be interesting people, and they always want to know my sister’s name. I usually let them believe that that’s what happened, that my parents named me, to avoid having to explain. Maybe I’ll stop doing that.

Patience is a name that usually elicits an equally strong reaction as Pei Hsuan. But I like this reaction more. And making this decision about my name has felt like choosing a piece of my identity.

I’m still growing into Patience, I think. But I’m not sure if I will ever get completely used to it, just like I was never quite used to Pei Hsuan.


By the way, my sister doesn’t call me Patience. She calls me Pei (we call each other Pei, and I love that) or Pat or Patty. I don’t like Pat or Patty, but I like that she calls me something no one else does.