On saying and staying with a name

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Hello, my name is …

“What’s your name?”

For many, this is a straightforward, easy question to answer. For me, however, what ensues from this question makes answering far from easy.

“My name is Tianyi Dong.”

This has become the hardest sentence to say.

“What was that?”

It’s natural for English speakers to be confused by the unusual combination of a high front tense vowel and an alveolar nasal sound. And rarely are they able to catch the tricky and subtle pitch change called tone — one of the most troubling peculiarities of the Chinese language.

I used to get nervous about my name because of the pressure it puts on others and, consequently, on me.

I remember the writing test I took when I applied to be a news reporter for The Daily Californian my first semester at UC Berkeley. It was a press conference simulation. We were asked to say our names before asking questions. Names and questions jumped like popcorn, and I was eager to throw out my own, too. But the moment I shouted out my name, I was taken aback, and my voice grew smaller and smaller until no one could hear the last word of my question.

It sounded strange. It’s strange to put my given name before my family name: In Chinese, we reverse the order. It’s strange to hear my name sound so different from everyone else’s.

A lot of international students choose to go by an English name. I used to have one for my English class in high school, too. For a reason I cannot articulate, however, I chose not to use it.

My name is Tianyi Dong, and that is my one and only name. I feel as if I would lose something permanently if I were to change it. Jane isn’t me.

The characters in Chinese names have magic. Over time, you feel the person associated with them. The seemingly random strokes somehow reflect a part of the person’s personality. Each character bears its own meaning, and as a whole, the name usually represents a good wish from parents. The phrase “One is just like his or her name” is considered to be one of the highest compliments in Chinese culture.

My name means “happy every day.” It’s a kind of happiness different from in-the-moment excitement. It is the happiness derived from a peaceful mind that transcends the vicissitude of life, adversities or fortunes — a concept deeply valued in Chinese philosophy.

I actually learned about this in a philosophy class here at UC Berkeley titled Confucius for Today. To be honest, I took it expecting an easy A in a breadth requirement. But I ended up with the most rewarding experience I could have hoped for. By re-reading the Confucian classics from a Western and contemporary perspective, I learned to appreciate how the environment in which I grew up and the ideas in which I had been immersed shaped me into the person I am today. According to Confucian philosophy, morality lies at the core of our value system, and upholding it brings about the confidence that helps to maintain our happiness in the most difficult of times. This idea has sustained me through the ups and downs of life. I realized the extent to which I have internalized the philosophy embodied in my name. I reaffirmed my faith in my culture, my identity and my name.

I became more and more confident in saying my name aloud. I could not be more grateful for everyone I’ve met here at UC Berkeley who struggled to say my name and thus encouraged me to preserve my identity. The greatest kindness I have received is from the people I met who told me they wanted to say my name correctly. I smiled, saying it was fine. But they genuinely wanted to get my name right, insisting I pronounce it again.

As I’ve gone on to meet new friends, I’ve realized that there is a breadth of languages spoken on this campus and that there are people bearing names in all kinds of languages. I push myself to try to correctly pronounce their names in their own languages — in Spanish, Hindu, Korean, Russian, Swahili — just as others have done for me. I know it takes a little bit of courage to keep something you hold dear, such as your name, but it is on us to respect that.

Say your name out loud — “Hello, my name is …” — and say it your way in order to respect the diversity of culture we celebrate here at UC Berkeley.

Contact Tianyi Dong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dong_tianyi.