Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Real names policy in the 20th century

If anyone believes that the current "real names" issues being investigated by companies such as Google and Facebook are easy to solve, they just need to take a look at history.

This was illustrated to me in one of my job changes - actually, my job stayed the same, but the company changed. At one point there was a change of e-mail servers, and the new e-mail server used our official names, rather than the names that we often used. When the change was implemented, we had to spend a lot of time matching the e-mail addresses to the people that we knew. And I'm not just talking about using "Jack" or "Johnny" instead of "John." For example, Person X's official name was a hyphenated name; therefore, instead of searching the e-mail directory for "Smith, Sue," we had to search the e-mail directory for "Jones-Smith, Sue."

But it was very hard to find some of our Asian employees. If you have met an Asian (often a Chinese person) who was not born in the United States, you may find that the person has a nice, English-sounding given name. If you think about it, you'll probably realize that this is not the person's real given name, and that the person has adopted an English-sounding name to get along in a predominantly English culture. But in some cases, the person may also use a different FAMILY name. I knew one person who used an Asian family name that was easier to pronounce than the person's REAL Asian family name.

Now one might think that the overseas Chinese/Asian tendency to adopt English-sounding names is something that is forced upon them by ugly Americans. But it turns out that there is also a tendency to adopt English-sounding names in the People's Republic of China. Mao must be turning over in his grave. Take the experience of Huan Hsu, an American who moved to Shanghai:

When I moved to Shanghai about a year ago, I figured my name would finally seem "normal." No longer would it be the albatross of my childhood in Utah—making me stand out among the Johns, Steves, and Jordans. But when I introduced myself, I was met with blank stares, double takes, and requests for my English name. People—Chinese people—often wondered whether I were being patronizing, like the fabled Frenchman who icily responds in English to an earnest American's attempts to get directions en fran├žais. My company almost didn't process my paperwork because I left the box for "English name" blank. "You don't have an English name?" the HR woman gasped. "You should really pick one." She then waited for me to do just that, as if I could make such an important existential decision on the spot; I told her I'd get back to her. People—Chinese people—had trouble recalling my name. One guy at work, a Shanghai-born VP, called me "Steve" for almost three months. At my workplace, which is 90 percent mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school. The names ran the gamut, from the standard (Jackie, Ivy) to the unusual (Sniper, King Kong), but what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.

Well, perhaps the English names were needed during the early Deng Xiaoping era, when Westerners were coming over to China with the business smarts. But China certainly has business smarts of its own today. So why do the English names persist?

Increasingly, these bosses are Chinese, yet the English names persist, in part because English tends to be the lingua franca for business technology, and even native Chinese often find it more efficient to type, write, or sign documents in English. Using English names also creates a more egalitarian atmosphere. Most forms of address in China reinforce pecking orders, such as "Third Uncle" and "Second Daughter" at home or "Old Wang" or "Little Hu" in the village square....

[Chinese] insisted that taking an English name isn't kowtowing, nor is it simply utilitarian. Rather, it's essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals. Whereas in the past patriotism was expressed by self-sacrifice, it is now expressed through economic activity. So by working for, say, 3M, Chinese citizens are helping to build up China, and the English names they take on in the process are as patriotic as Cultural Revolution-era monikers like Ai Guo (Loves China) or Wei Dong (Mao's Protector).


In actuality, Chinese sometimes have multiple names - Mao's wife had several - but the practice is not limited to China. If you mention the names "Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov" or "Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili" to your average anti-Communist, he or she may not have any idea who you're talking about. (If you don't recognize the names either, perhaps you weren't aware that "Lenin" and "Stalin" were pseudonyms.)

But my favorite example was a former co-worker from Thailand who is of Chinese ancestry. As English Premier League fans know, Thai names can be rather long. My co-worker, therefore, usually went by his Chinese name: Lee Mee.

Of course, today he probably goes by the name Jack.
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