The Name Controversy: Does Your Name Spell Out Who You Are?

Zixia Linda Liu ’19

Three years ago, I was spared from Beijing’s heat wave and came to enjoy a pleasant summer at one of the summer schools in New England. Most students were from the States; some were international. My life was academically-loaded but single-minded, naïve, and carefree, until people started to ask about my names.

“So,” 14-year-old Dafne from Turkey asked, “how can you be both Zixia and Linda? Like, how can you have two names?”

Pause. I was a bit shocked. No one had ever questioned my multiple names before. All my friends back home have two names at least. Beside our formal names, we also have English names for school, and informal names that only family members can use to refer to us. Take me as an example. My formal name is Zixia Liu, English name – Linda, informal name – Shanshan.

“Zixia is my real name,” I tried to explain, “and because it is mandatory to learn English at school, and elementary school teachers want to make learning fun, I got my English name.”

Dafne gave me a confused smile. “I learned English at school without having to get an ‘English’ name…”

One of the many benefits (or difficulties) of leaving a familiar environment is that people will challenge your values and things you take for granted. Dafne was intellectually curious, as college admissions officers would coin it. Her question pointed to an interesting aspect of my identity that back then I was still too young to understand. That summer, I went back home and continued with my life as a Chinese student. Her question became no concern of mine.

Two summers flew past and it came to the time when I was going off to college. I felt unprepared. For one thing, I still needed to pack, and hadn’t even begun doing so. But my friends seemed to have started wrestling with deeper questions. On Wechat, one of my friends asked me if I would use my Chinese name at Wellesley (see, my life was stimulated by good questions, and it still is). I was shocked again by how much people were thinking ahead. It took me awhile to get back to her, but at last I decided. “I kinda want to, but I’m not sure if people can pronounce it right.”

“I had the same concern,” she said, “but Jamie, my mentor, told me that if people really want to get to know me, they will take the effort to learn my name.”

“But I don’t want to drill people about correctly pronouncing my name,” I thought.

Some weeks later, we both came to Wellesley. She ditched Grace and became Caiqin; I ditched Zixia and was still Linda.

First semester of college, I took a public-speaking class with a very charming professor. She had a strong presence and was a great force of life. In her class, we talked a lot about names, and she encouraged me to use my Chinese name. “I like that you are now using your real name!” She wrote on my end-term paper.

Outside of class, I continued with my English name. Deep down, I felt lost. Which name should I use? Which one better represents me? For starter, I’ve been using Linda for at least thirteen years, and this English name is only five years younger than my Chinese name. Beyond my attachment to Linda, it just didn’t feel right to use my Chinese name here in the U.S. Zixia somehow made me feel vulnerable and fragile, as vulnerable as when you find out that you are half-naked in front of fifty properly-clothed classmates. It felt like I was exposing something extremely personal to the public.

To figure out how I should refer to myself, I made a list of all the possible combinations:

“Zixia Liu says: I am Chinese, and want to be perceived that way. Zixia (Linda) Liu indicates that Linda is my nickname. And then, Linda Liu …”

What does Linda Liu indicate? In primary and middle school, I was Linda in my English class and 刘梓侠 in all my other classes. Linda Liu became my name when I went to the international division of my high school. For one thing, I think this combination of an English first name and a Chinese last name manifests globalization on a personal level. English is the global language; in China, schools in both the cities and the countryside teach students English, from 7th grade at the latest. The degree to which our country’s Department of Education values English shows the urgency they feel in connecting us to the rest of the world.

In today’s world, international businesses and collaborations are not new concepts; cross-cultural communication is gaining popularity. In American, British, and Canadian colleges and universities, even in high schools, the population of international students is growing. Not only are students coming in, many of them are going out. At Wellesley, 45% of the juniors study abroad every year. As the world becomes more interconnected, it’s not surprising that I have an English name.

What bothers me about Linda Liu is its defiance – its acknowledgment of my “temporary residence.” It hides my alien-looking Asian name and helps me keep a low-key presence. It states: I will only be here for a while, and will soon go back to where I “belong.” So to make things simple during my time here, I will live by an “alias” instead of giving people the real me.

In contrast, Zixia Liu is a brave statement. It says, “I am ready to be challenged.” I think for my friends who ditched their English names, and go by their Asian names here in college, they are fully ready to embrace life in a foreign culture and discover their true identities. Being ready to face challenges (or charges) for who we are, and where we are from, is part of this identity.

Despite the connection I feel with Zixia, I cannot detach myself from Linda. I am Linda, as surely as I am Zixia. Coming to the States for college has always been the plan. At home, my dad sometimes calls me Linda. When I was younger and didn’t speak fluent English, my dad would speak English at home to drill me. My schools had foreign teachers, who brought with them not only native English, but also western culture itself. Attending college in the U.S., I have become even more of a cultural hybrid. While Chinese is my dominant cultural background, how “pure” is it? In China, people celebrate (for most, only commercially) Valentine’s Day, Easter, and Christmas. People travel to different parts of the world to bring back advanced knowledge and the “western way” of doing things. I belong to the generation that is growing up with western influences alongside Chinese ideals. I cannot delete the part of me that Linda represents. But at the same time, something prevents me from fully embracing the name Linda. It might be my Chinese heritage, the part of me that refuses to be Americanized, or the noise from other people, trying to tell me how to think. But really, how I identify myself matters the most.

For now, I’m satisfied with my temporary solution: I go by both names. To those who know me by Linda, I am Linda; to those who know me as 梓侠, I am Zixia. And to most, I’m Zixia (Linda) Liu’ 19. I give them four options to choose from – Zixia, Linda, Liu, and a Wellesley student from the class of 2019.

At times, with my two names, I feel slightly foreign in my own body, and faintly doubtful of who I really am. But I know I’m not alone in this controversy. So many of you out there with multiple names may feel the same way. I hope we all find a way to make peace with ourselves. Best of luck.


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