Valerian

I took on the name of ‘Valerian’ just before university started. Many people who already knew me found it greatly amusing. Some have taken to calling me ‘Valerie’; a rather endearing nickname, I might say. Those whom I have got to know since find it difficult to conceive that I used to go by a different name. And yet, one question unites them all:

“Why Valerian?”

Have I played too much Starcraft? Or maybe I have ambitions to own a steel company? Perhaps my presence is rather soporific?

It’s none of those reasons.

The reasons are manifold, and I hope to shed some light on them here. For a long time it puzzled me that although my upbringing was almost entirely in English, my name was in (Mandarin) Chinese. My parents told me that they decided to leave me to choose my own English name. Considering that they only decided on my Chinese name after seeing it on a plaque on a wall in the hospital where I was delivered, just after my birth, I am inclined to believe that their decision to not give me an English name was at least in part due to not having any bright ideas. Which is fine with me.

My command of English has always been much better than that of (Mandarin) Chinese. Consequently, my language of choice is English, and having a name which was entirely in Chinese simply did not feel quite right. In fact, I can quite safely say that my approach to the Chinese culture and the Chinese language is akin to that of a foreign culture and a foreign language. I might appreciate the culture, be able to speak a little of the language, but they are not what I base my identity on. To be fair, I do not identify with any single culture in particular (again, this is a topic for another time), but having a language barrier certainly does not make engaging with the culture of my forebears any easier.

Consequently, I have long endeavoured to find a suitable English name. I once considered choosing ‘Julian’, but it did not feel quite right. The final impetus came after I co-authored my first paper. There were simply too many people called ‘H Chen’. Adding a second initial narrowed it down a little, but there were still too many hits. At this point, it occurred to me: I had to choose a name starting with ‘V’, since there’s no ‘V’ when transliterating Mandarin names to English (not under the current prevalent modern conventions anyway). Short of changing my surname, that was the best way to get far less common initials.

I looked up various lists of English first names. I felt that the more common ‘Vincent’ and ‘Victor’ did not fit my tastes, but ‘Valerian’ appealed to me. I decided to give it a go whilst at university, and have since decided that it was a suitable choice. I have now added it to all my official documents. I did not remove my old Chinese name out of sentimentality, choosing to keep it as my middle name instead. Perhaps it is for the better, for my Chinese name signifies what I was born as and my English name what I chose to be.

There have been several interesting experiences regarding my name. The one I remember most vividly occurred during the early weeks of Cambridge, in my first materials science supervision. My supervisor asked for my name, and I said ‘Valerian’. Seeing that it was not part of my official name (the initials of which were used as part of my Cambridge email address), he pressed for my ‘actual’ name. I was not particularly pleased, but I got his meaning, and obliged. He told me that I should not pick another name simply because foreigners find it difficult to grasp my original name, and that he would learn my name as I would learn his. I was too awkward to explain my choice; besides, I was keener to get down to learning what he had to teach. And so, over the course of the year, I saw him struggle to remember my Chinese name. He never learnt how to pronounce it quite correctly, but I saw this valiant effort sustained across many supervisions, from the start to the end, and I was very moved by his noble motives. Similarly, I made some effort to remember his name; to this day I can still remember the entirety of his name – all seven words – although I sometimes get the order of the second and third last words mixed up. I don’t think I managed the pronunciation either.

Not more than a year later, a friend whom I met for the second time greeted me with my Chinese name (with fairly accurate pronunciation too, as it goes). I was surprised, since I introduced myself as ‘Valerian’ at university (and since), with few exceptions. When I asked him about it, he said that we should not use different names because ‘Westerners cannot pronounce [remember?] them”. I was greatly amused. As a Singaporean I’d consider my Slovenian friend to be ‘Western’, but I guess it is all relative. At that point I fully appreciated how my earlier notion of ‘European’ as a largely monolithic entity was no less naive than the what Edward Said decried in Orientalism.

As much as I appreciate the goodwill, I hope this post has helped to alleviate the misconception that ‘Hongjie’ is my ‘real’ name. When one of my IMRE supervisors who knew me from the pre-Valerian era switched to using my current name without me requesting that he do so, I felt a deep joy stir within me. Maybe he understood, but even if he did not, he respected my decision. He used the name I identified with, and that means a lot to me. A Vietnamese friend of mine once mentioned how happy she was when she returned home, where people used her Vietnamese name instead of her English one. Fascinatingly, the exact opposite is true of me.

Needless to say, I have grown very fond of my English name, and I now largely respond only to it, for it is dearer to me than the name I used to go by. It was unintentional, but it is just as well that I chose an uncommon name. It will always be at least a little out of place, no matter where. Like me.

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3 thoughts on “Valerian

  1. LG

    Well, I prefer not to add English names, simply because the whole world is gradually learning Chinese names. Like, LKY never calls himself Harry Kuan Yew Lee, not even Kuan Yew Lee. Because he knows eventually the world will learn surname precedes given name in Chinese. Again, this is personal preference.

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  2. KnightOfTheRoundTable

    Your post was brought to my attention because of the strange parallels between us. I am a few years your senior, doing a PhD on A*Star’s dime. I too have made a pretty poor fist of being a Chinese, or speaking the language (to my surprise not speaking Mandarin can hurt you in the academic world). I’ve walked on the same bit of carpet at IHPC as you have. And like you, my cultural upbringing is about as far removed from being an Asian and a Chinese as it goes.

    But then the strange thing is that I have the opposite problem from you. Though I have an English name, I only use my Chinese (actually, Hokkien) name both with my research work and in my personal life. So your post came to me as quite the shock.

    Somehow there are others who think like I do, like Lee Kuan Yew and his children and grandchildren, though I don’t know what their motivations are. I’m certainly not humiliated about having an English name, or even that I was christened after a pop culture figure. I’ll put it this way, an English name is not essential to my identity as a Chinese man with no western or biblical heritage.

    I hope you won’t be offended by what I say next. Maybe I read your post wrongly, but my impression is that behind the A*Star scholar who attended Cambridge and has his beautiful grades all over his resume, and who led the physics society with great distinction, lies a man who is ashamed of being Chinese. I can tell you’re proud of your achievements. And you should be, because you’ve earned your achievements through hard work and intellectual capacity. But what’s with being ashamed of being who you are? Sorry mate, it’s foolish. You’re Chinese by extraction and ancestry and no amount of bleaching cream is gonna change it.

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  3. I would first like to remind you that proficiency in a language is not to be confused with one’s identification with the culture from which it emerged. At the risk of invoking the stereotype of Singaporean humility, I normally downplay my command of Mandarin Chinese, but I assure you it is good enough to communicate with my mainland Chinese colleagues, should the need arise. And it has. It takes a little concentration, but it is not beyond my reach. Nonetheless, the language has nothing to do with my cultural identity. I am always very happy to engage with people from cultures other than my own, be they from China, Eastern Europe, or wherever. Speaking their language always helps. Similarly, I am very touched when my mainland Chinese colleagues make an effort to speak to me in English.

    Furthermore, even if one really wished to be ‘Chinese’, it would not be a straightforward task. China has a multitude of cultures and attitudes, and this is not made any simpler by both the PRC and the RoC claiming to be the true heirs of traditional ‘Chineseness’. My ancestors did not speak Mandarin Chinese as a first language, but instead used the Teochew and Hokkien dialects (again, this classification is not as straightforward as it seems in Singapore, but that is a topic for someone else to elucidate). If you wish to find out more, I suggest this rather provocative article (http://www.jstor.org/stable/303809).

    On the other hand, if you think this is about respecting my ancestors, then I posit you this: why did they move to Singapore? They sought a better life, they did not feel compelled to stick to antiquated traditions. If their legacy has taught me anything, it is the value of following my own paths and not limited by the circumstances of my birth. That being said, even if they had decided otherwise, I would not have made a different choice.

    In this increasingly globalised and fluid world, the notion that one’s ethnicity should determine one’s identity is problematic. A great benefit of growing up in Singapore is that I have been able to see many different cultures, from which I can draw inspiration for my own identity. My work ethic is ‘Eastern’, so to speak, and my belief in meritocracy is distinctly Singaporean. On the flip side, I am an ardent supporter of liberty and liberal attitudes (in general). In that vein, I believe that we all have to live by our own principles, as long as we do not cause harm to others. We should be free to choose our own identities, even if we do not agree with one another.

    I have seen East and West, and there is no reason why hybridisation is impossible. I have chosen what I consider to be the best of the many worlds I have glimpsed into. A rainbow, a whole spectrum of ideas is what has made me who I am, and I am proud of that.

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