What’s in a Name?

A name is a series of letters combined together to work as a social signifier of an individual in society. The name given to a person is meant to represent that person from the day they are born indefinitely. If someone knows your name it is an endearing quality that is often equated to some degree as that person therefore knowing you. Names often have stories and values associated with them, they link lines of heritage together, and they are used to identify one human being from another. With all of these factors surrounding a name, choosing to change a name is no small decision.

This past class we talked in great depth about what a name means to the individual named, to their family, and to society. We talked about how a name can maintain or sever ties with the individual’s past and family and how by even just looking at a name many preconceived notions start to form before the individual is even met.

Author of "Children as Enemies" Ha Jin
Author of “Children as Enemies” Ha Jin

Ha Jin’s short story entitled, “Children as Enemies” deals with the issues surrounding a name change from the vantage point of a Chinese Grandfather who has just sold everything to join his son’s family in America.

The story opens by stating that “Our Grandchildren Hate Us. The boy and the girl, ages eleven and nine, are just a pair of selfish, sloppy brats and have no respect for old people. Their animosity toward us originated at the moment their names were changed, about three months ago.” The story continues by explaining what the two names meant to the family, the children’s reasons for wishing to have their names changed and the parent’s reasons for allowing the change to take place.

Reasons to keep the children’s names included hanging on to the meaning of their names, honoring their cultural heritage, honoring their family ties, and holding on to the cultural signifier that has always been at the forefront as their identity. Reasons for changing the children’s names included ease of pronunciation for the children’s peers and teachers and getting rid of one of the major signifiers of cultural difference between them and their peers. Changing the children’s names to more traditionally American names would enable the children to blend in better with the society around them. The parents ultimately decided to allow the children to change their names to the Grandparent’s great dismay. Do you believe this is right? Is it a parent’s responsibility to teach their children to cherish the heritage that their name represents or is it their responsibility to make their children’s life as easy as possible?

When it comes to either changing a name or keeping a name, I cannot decide if a name is an immensely personal identity signifier that should be held onto or if it is an arbitrary title our parents assign to us that we should feel free to change as we feel our identity changes. So many aspects of identity and how we portray ourselves to the outside world are fluid, should a name also be fluid? Is a name a matter of honor to one’s family and culture or is a name just simply a name?

Jin, Ha. A Good Fall. “Children As Enemies”. New York: Pantheon Books, 2009.

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