Embrace Your Identity

A typical International Student using a Western name.

As a High School senior who has been attending the same International school for 12 consecutive years, I have seen the severely unique traits that many International students share: cultural diversity and individuality.

From learning how to speak multiple languages to being apt scholars of various cultures and traditions, International students clearly distinguish themselves from students who are exposed to a single-cultured milieu. But at the same time, and rather ironically, students are also drawn to a natural sense of conformity when it comes to their names.

That’s right. One of the most conspicuous characteristic, among not only International students but also multi-cultured students, is that many prefer being addressed by Westernized names instead of their original, traditional, and non-filtered name.

If you are Chinese, Singaporean, Korean, or from anywhere else that doesn’t assign you a purely Western name, chances are, you have two names. One would be the funky two-or-three-worded name unbeknownst to most besides your few closest pals. The other would be the succinct English name that people call you at school.

According to the International School of Beijing’s (ISB- the school I attend) high school directory, about 60% of Koreans have English names, with the remaining 40% keeping their traditional ones. Moreover, with Chinese-Americans or Chinese-Canadians, more than 94% use Western names. Clearly aware of this occurrence, my closest Chinese-Canadian friend, Sibo, says that many “might be uncomfortable using their authentic name at school, so instead they decide to use an English name, like me.”

Why is this so? Reasons vary. My Korean friends “H” and “A” (I haven’t gotten their permission to use their names), both using Western names, stated that their Korean names simply “were too hard for friends and teachers to pronounce accurately.”

Another friend of mine, her Western name being Tabby and the Korean, Min Joo Seo, says, “it was easier for me to integrate myself into the International community, as most of my friends found it hard to remember my Korean name.”

On an important side note, I’d like to make it clear that the norm of students utilizing English names is impertinent to those who are given a Western name from birth, and decide to keep it as their one and only name.

Ted, whose Korean name is Tae Han, has lived in multifarious social environments. He told me how he arrived at his name Ted: “When I went to an English academy in Korea at the age of eight, the academy told me to get an English name. My mom recommended the name, Teddy. When I moved to the US in 6th grade, I stuck to my Westernized name in order to fit with the other kids who didn’t know much of Korean culture. Gradually, people called me Ted, so I stuck with it.”

In Ted’s case, a series of fortuitous events and a bit of parental intervention led to the creation of the English name Ted. His story illustrates that an English name that is often familiar to others is to some extent helpful in integrating into a Western community, as the social environment greatly affects the person’s appetite for how he or she is represented.

Despite the numerous reasons students provide when explaining the origins of their Westernized names, Jae Hyun, a senior at ISB, who uses his Korean name at school, when asked why he did not opt for an English name, replied:

“Because Jae Hyun is my original Korean name, and I love my language. I don’t feel the need to [mask] myself as another person.”

Jae Hyun’s answer is insightful — the ability to identify with his language for the pure love of it and embracing his Korean name is something not everyone can do. Jae Hyun’s confidence deserves to be commended.
Granted, this does not mean that identifying with a Westernized name is wrong or unjust — Ted is a beautiful name. In fact, some students are born with an English name or prefer using their English name, and frankly, the choice is ultimately theirs. But this confident mindset is indeed something that more students should integrate when thinking about their own names — at the end of the day, whether you like it or not, it is your name, so give it a chance to share a little bit about yourself with other people.

I would merely be writing a pretentious grant if this thought had not impacted me. In fact, I practice what I preach. At the beginning of sophomore year, I decided to embark on a new journey with a new name — Sung, from the old name Fred. Many have told me to wait until university to go by a different name, but I firmly believed in the importance of finding an undisputed identity.

After all, Sung is not my real name either. It is just a part of my full name (Woo Sung). However, being called Sung means a step closer to searching my true self, reestablishing how others feel about me as a person, or as my friends call it, “returning back to [my] roots” and being confident about who I am.

Knowing who you are, what defines you, and how to embrace yourself, are the beginning cornerstones to pinpointing your identity.

People naturally tend to identify with others who possess similar traits as them — just how Ted fits better to the English-speaking community than does Tae Han. Fortunately, the students at my school are exposed to an International environment where students meet friends from every corner of the world. This provides the ultimate environment for students to express their cultural and personal values.

To International students, I would strongly suggest taking the advantage of your International milieu. Be confident. Who cares if you have a two-worded first name? Or a name that nobody can pronounce? It only costs your friends a little extra time when addressing you. Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Pyotr Tchaikovsky were hard enough names to pronounce, yet neither changed their names to ones that were easier to pronounce, as people eventually learned how to say them. Take this opportunity to stand out from others, and to welcome your identity into the international community.

To those who use a Westernized name instead of a Chinese, Japanese, or Korean name, I won’t coerce you into changing your name! But I will ask you to ponder over hat your real name means to you and reflect whether you might be subconsciously trying to suppress your true identity.

So, this isn’t a call to action for anyone to change his or her name. But this is my message towards the students, adults, and multi-cultured individuals, to not relinquish their individuality just to comply with how society or community expects them to be, because truly embracing identity — as well as your culture and tradition— may very well start from embracing your name.

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