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The trouble with having a “foreign” name

Leon Saw

Mon May 28 2012


WHAT’S in a name? Leon Saw (or should we say, Saw Lidong?) explains why he made the switch from the name he’d used most of his life, to an “easier” alternative.

Having just arrived in Australia, it wasn’t long before I had to make my first self-introduction.

“Hi, my name is phonetically too sophisticated for your uncultured vocal capabilities to accurately enunciate,” my evil-half suggested I say, nose in the air and all. But being rude to people while in their country – or to anyone, anywhere really – is a surefire way to land yourself in a ditch, covered in petrol, and on fire.

So I went with my good half’s answer instead.

“Hi, my name is Lidong,” I said.

“Hi Leon! It’s so nice to meet you,” the Australian replied.

Now, this was hardly the first time someone invented a new name for me. There were those bullies in primary school, who the evil me sincerely hopes comes to kerosene-fuelled fiery ends in cold lonely holes in the ground. Then there are the parents who throw labels like “hopeless”, “stupid”, and “useless” at me, which seems like abuse, but the not-so-evil me insists that because my dad and mum are of the Asian variety, the labels actually imply that they really, really love me.

But this instance was different. It wasn’t some mean kid trying to get to me with verbal denigration, or my folks showing me they really, really cared about me. This wasn’t deliberate. The person I had introduced myself to, I believed, had genuinely misheard my name. So why didn’t I correct him? And in the words of friends who discovered my dual identity, “How in the world did Lidong become Leon?”

You see, after being addressed as “Leon”, I assumed, maybe a bit unfairly, that my new acquaintance had absolutely no knowledge of the Chinese language and I briefly considered spending the next few minutes coaching him on how to pronounce it. But ultimately, I decided against it, bearing in mind the possibility that the concept wouldn’t be properly grasped and he’d just end up calling me “Li” or, God forbid, “Dong”. So “Leon” it was. Besides, all things considered, it sounded perfectly fine to me.

The decision was made in the instant before I resumed the conversation, without skipping a beat, the acquaintance none the wiser.

“Nice to meet you too!” I replied, accepting his version of my name without protest.

And because I envisioned what a disaster it would be having to explain my name repeatedly in similar scenarios in the future (and I was sure there would be many), Lidong became “Leon” to almost everyone here, while I remained Lidong to people back in Singapore – confusing the hell out of them all.

Perhaps it’s a bit sad, heinous even, that I’ve so casually discarded a name, carefully chosen for me by my parents. But having adopted “Leon” for almost half a decade now, I’ve realised that your name, whatever it is or whatever you choose it to be, is simply a tag used to identify you. It doesn’t own you.

You own it.

Ever had trouble explaining your name here in Australia? Share your stories with us below.