Hey, don't change my name

Hey, don't change my name
Teo Cheng Wee.

My name, as you can read above, is Teo Cheng Wee.

My friends call me Cheng Wee. Telemarketers call me Mr Teo. Hawkers sometimes still call me "Ah Dee" (Hokkien for little brother). That's pretty much it really. Until I came to London.

Then I got called so many names, without anyone even trying to insult me. But they do, oh they do. Here I've been called "Cheng", "Teo", "Cheng Teo", "C" and bizarrely "Liam".

I'll explain them one by one.

I introduce myself as Cheng Wee, so most people assume my first name is just "Cheng", while Wee is my surname.

Teo is what people call me if they see my full name, usually in print. For those folks, they assume that Teo is my first name, Cheng is my middle name, and Wee is my surname.

Cheng Teo happens when I fill up a form stating that my surname is Teo. When the receptionist looks through the form, she assumes Cheng is my first name, Wee is my middle name and Teo is - since I wrote it down - my surname. Hence, "Mr Cheng Teo? Please go to Room 1".

I have no idea how "C" came about, except there are mailers sent to my flat that are definitely for me, addressed to Dr C. Either that, or some rapper used to live here and also donated money every month to Oxfam.

"Liam" was the name given to me by several European and South American friends who were struggling to remember my name and wanted something easier to remember.

One evening, they stared intently at me for 20 seconds before triumphantly declaring, "You look like a Liam", whatever that means. I'm relating this story for people who can't be bothered to understand foreign names. Perhaps I've grown crankier with age, but I've found myself less and less willing to tolerate people addressing me wrongly.

When I was working in the United States more than 10 years ago, I came across quite a few Name Changers - people who turn your name to whatever they pleased or could remember.

Their problem is not with the pronunciation. I can understand if people fumble over Chinese words such as Zhou, Qiu, Xuan and so on, but people don't usually have trouble saying "Cheng Wee". They just can't be bothered to remember it.

So I got responses such as: "I'll never get that", "Do you have an English name? Other Asian people having English names", or "That sounds like Jamie. I'll call you Jamie."

Being young and eager to please, I just grinned (or grimaced) and let them call me whatever they wanted. I know Name Changers usually don't mean any malice, but being so careless with another person's name is at best insensitive or, worse, downright rude.

A name after all is, well, personal. It could have deep meaning for the person and his family. It's not really for anyone else to abbreviate or change.

For Chinese names, part of the problem for the foreigners stems from the fact that the surname goes in front of the first name, which often has two characters, both of which make up the first name.

Still, I don't understand, for instance, why people would call me "Cheng" after I say, "Hi, I'm Cheng Wee". Does anyone really introduce himself with his full name unless he is auditioning for American Idol? And if you're not sure about the naming convention, why don't you ask?

But fine, let's say it's an honest mistake. That doesn't explain why this American chap who lives near me keeps calling me "Hey". I regularly bump into him because we stay in the same accommodation and we have mutual friends, yet he's never bothered to learn my name. When we chat, it's just "Hey" this and "Hey" that.

I, on the other hand, try to say his name Mike as many times as possible to embarrass him. I don't think it is working.

Meanwhile, many of my friends in London called me Cheng for months before I decided enough was enough and went around correcting every single person who got it wrong.

Some people might say it's easier to pick up, say, Western names. But it's just as tricky for me to learn names such as Malte, Clotilde, Sergey, Ellish and Consilia - all real names of friends here.

Still I make it a point to remember all of them because, well, these are their names. They're no harder than the names of drugs, but people don't seem to have a problem remembering those.

I feel it all boils down to effort and sincerity. After I went around drilling "Cheng Wee" into everyone's head, several people still called me Cheng (yah, whatever). But I've also seen people from diverse cultures successfully pick up foreign names, including mine. They try their best to understand the name and how to pronounce it. If they mangle it, they apologise.

The culprits aren't just in London or in the US either. In Singapore, my Indian friend Jaya - already truncated for our convenience - gets called Jega. A Malay friend says her husband Adil turns into Aidil all the time.

We should do better. These things make a difference.

This article was first published on August 24, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.

More about

Purchase this article for republication.



Your daily good stuff - AsiaOne stories delivered straight to your inbox
By signing up, you agree to our Privacy policy and Terms and Conditions.