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Please call me Bill: how migrants choose their new NZ names

Sep 24th, 2009 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout, News


NAME GAME: Sue McNatty (third from left) with students Jiwu (David) Gong, Mengsi Li and Yin-Lien Chen.

WHEN a young Chinese man told Sue McNatty he wanted her to call him “Bill”, she was intrigued.

Why Bill?

“Because of Bill Gates,” the English language student told Sue, his tutor at Whitireia Community Polytechnic.

When he introduces himself to people as Bill, they think of Bill Gates, she recalls.

“They will remember him. He has chosen the name of a hero. He wants to be remembered.”

Bill’s is a typical story for students coming to New Zealand, and for migrants who often start a new life here. For many, choosing a new Anglicised name helps.

“It’s kind of good for the immigrant [to adapt a new name], because they canNatalie WongFINAL create a new identity for themselves,” says Chinese-born Natalie Wong (pictured right), 20, from Korokoro.

“I don’t think they’d lose something [identity-wise]. You can’t really keep one identity for the rest of your life. So they come here and they’ll have a new one.”

Diversity in the Wellington region has slightly increased in 2008, with the proportion of people belonging to Asian ethnic groups now 0.9 % higher than the national average of 5.0%.
With nearly 37,000 Asian people living in Wellington, our capital has the second largest number of Asians in the country.

Many who choose to live in New Zealand consider changing their first name, mostly because the correct pronunciation of many Asian names is troublesome for most Kiwis.

Asia:New Zealand Foundation media adviser Charles Mabbett says discrimination in the job market may be one of several reasons why migrants adopt Anglo-Saxon or European names.

He refers to studies showing that many Kiwi recruiters, employment agencies and employers are likely to reject CVs with foreign difficult-to-pronounce names.

“Many New Zealanders struggle with foreign names and this is an indictment on this country being largely mono-lingual.”   Assimilation and integration also play a part in a person’s decision to take another name, as migrants have a strong desire to fit into society.   One way of being a “Kiwi” is by adopting a name that makes it easier for Kiwis to engage with them, he says.   The desire of being fashionable is another reason for Asians to anglicise names.

“In China, learning English is fashionable and therefore it follows that having an English or European name is also fashionable. Plus [the immigrants] can choose them for themselves.”

Sue McNatty asks her students at the beginning of each course, what they would like to be called and often gets to know them by their English names.

One of her Chinese students, Jin Xue Feng, got her English name, Shelly, given to by her Chinese husband, who found it easier to introduce her to his Kiwi friends by using a name they can easily remember.

Xue Feng did not feel upset about having an English name, but she liked her original name much better. She felt happy when the people in her home town called her Jin, which was more friendly.

Sue suggested Shelly go back to using her original Mandarin name – and tell people to remember it as “Chiffon”, because the name Xue Feng is pronounced just like the beautiful silk cloth.
Two weeks later, Xue Feng was already using “Chiffon” as the English version of her original name and seemed much happier than before.

Her friend Anny is from Taiwan and her original name is Wang Su E, but she has both names in her Taiwan passport.

For Anny, having an English name is not a loss of identity but the opposite: “My husband chose Anny for me to represent the family. Every member of my family has a name with the last two letters NY, for example Tommy, Anny…”

People looking for a new Western name can seek advice online. For example, BBC China offers guidelines on what to do when trying to change your first name.   Other websites provide lists with common British, American or European names.

Not everyone agrees with name changes, as NewsWire discovered in a street Kokirulatnam SivapalanFINALsurvey:

Kokirulatnam Sivapalan (pictured right), 62, from Newtown is proud of her origin and her name.

“I am Sri Lankan Tamil and vegetarian,” she says, and she would never change her name because “it is a gift from your parents.

“When you think of your name, you are thinking of your parents. We don’t give anything to our parents, but they give everything for us.”

Colleagues at work call her Korikula, as it is easier to remember.

“People say a nickname or shorten a name, that’s okay. But apart from that, you should not change it because that is your culture.

“Your name is according to the culture and the country and everything that is Magan PatelFINALthere, and I don’t know why you would deny where you’re from.”

Magan Patel (pictured left), 48, from India says: “Some Indian people come here and use another name but where they are coming from is part of their name. They are losing something when they change their name.”

Theja (pictured right below), who lives in Newtown and is originally from Sri Lanka, says it is a ThejaFINALpersonal choice.

“That person has got a free will – well, why not? But from my own perspective, I wouldn’t change.”

Rosa Kim, 42, is a student in Wellington Central and her Korean name is Heawon. She uses both names, after being called Rosa by her boss and workmates to make it easier for customers to remember her.

Lee WinhFINAL“For my graduation, I think I’d like to get called my original name, because it’s a piece of honour.”

Lee Winh (pictured left), 20, a Vietnamese student at Victoria University, thinks adopting an anglicised name is a good idea when Asians come to New Zealand.

Asked if Europeans should therefore change their names when going to Asia, he disagreed: “It’s something characteristic with Asian names [that] foreigners should respect, so for a foreigner to live in Asia, they should keep their name.” –

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is a graduate from Whitireia Journalism School, now working for a rock magazine in London.
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