Illustration by Ben Beechener
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the latter says: ‘…a rose/ By any other name would smell as sweet’, but I don’t think this applies to people’s perception of ‘foreign’ names. I’m Ellee, pronounced like ‘Ellie’. I have always gone by my middle name, except for the few choice nicknames that my dear friends have come up with over the years thanks to my highly punnable surname, such as ‘Sushi’ (not because I’m Asian), ‘Tsunami’, and ‘Tiramisu’, to name a few. My first name, though, is Lok-Yee, and that’s where the outer world’s perception begins, and where we lay our scene. I remember times during school where I would immediately anticipate the awkward moment about to take place when an unfamiliar teacher was taking the register. They would get to my name, and one of three things would happen: they either take a stab at it and usually get it right (it is literally the phonetically and orthographically anglicised version of my Chinese name, so there should be no challenge there), they sheepishly ask me how to pronounce it, or they just pause for a painstakingly long time. It’s like I can see their cogs whirring the moment they lay eyes on my name; thoughts ranging from whether to ask me how to pronounce it or not, to whether I’d deem them a racist and hate them forever for butchering my ‘foreign’ name if they did try, etc, etc. I always end up saying: “Ellee is fine”, usually as soon as the pause begins to get a tad bit uncomfortable; most of the time I don’t mind the interactions that ensue, as mutual respect tends to be the goal. My key takeaway point would be to just ask if you’re not sure, though, because mispronouncing a name and then acting haughty or even refusing to acknowledge your mistake upon correction is, in my opinion, the worst response. Whereas, if you ask, you are demonstrating an active desire to pronounce my name correctly (even if it is hard to butcher), and that pure intention is infallible.
People have also asked me why I don’t go by my first name. My first answer is that Ellee is what I’m familiar with. My family has always called me Ellee, even when I visited my relatives in Hong Kong, because it’s easy to pronounce, no matter what language you speak. My mother says that, if I were called something more phonetically complex such as Francesca, she hilariously guarantees that my HK relatives would call me by my Chinese name instead. On a more serious note, a go-to name that rolls off the English tongue makes it a lot easier to assimilate, and reduces the chances of discrimination that our features may bring about. A ‘foreign’ name may cause us to be perceived like caricatures, a visage whose different features are heightened, warped, and exaggerated in a xenophobic manner by the worst of the lot. Additionally, me going by Ellee does not mean that I have abandoned my culture. Firstly, my parents made sure of that by choosing the Chinese part of my name to be my first name, and secondly, my ethnicity and upbringing will not change no matter what my name is. I am tenderly proud of the meaning that my name has: 樂兒, its Cantonese pronunciation anglicised into Lok-Yee, means happy child, and it warms my heart that my mother wished that for my future. I like that it gives me a glimpse into her mind during a time before I was born. She also liked this particular spelling of Ellee, and if you get to know me well enough, I’ll indulge that story to you, as well as the one behind the ‘Sushi’ nickname.
So, what’s in a name? In my case, it contains a gallon of culture (and all that that may encompass), a heaped tablespoon of funny, awkward secondary school memories, and positive wishes for a daughter’s walk of life.