When I was ordering at a busy cafe the other morning, I did what I usually do: I gave my name as Jen.

“Jen” is my coffee name (see photo on left).

I started using it about ten years ago, when coffee-carts on the university campus became all the vogue. I discovered that I’d often be holding up tetchy, under-caffeinated queues with the repeated pronunciation and spellings of my given name for my order. It got rather tedious.

I had used “Jen” years before that, as a one-off thing for a job that involved a lot of cold-calling (*shudder*). I quickly got irritated with always having to enter into a conversation about my name with perfect strangers with whom I would never again cross paths. At the time, offering a fake name felt like an efficient compromise to get through the job.

It also felt like I was ‘selling out’ my heritage for convenience’s sake. Which, to some extent, I was. I’ve made myself more convenient for the society in which I live. That said, my day is less frustrating when I occasionally swap my name with another that’s instantly understood and easily spelt; so, I’ve made my everyday less annoying in general and means I choose my battles. Is this pandering to hegemonic expectations? Self-policing or internal colonisation? A smidge of all these things? Possibly.

Coming from an academic field that interrogates cultural identity politics, notions of authenticity, diasporic ‘fluidity’, etc, I had to stop myself from shoring up this post with numerous references and quotes from critics. I will, however, point you to this great post (with its bevy of spot-on links) at Calvin Ho’s blog, The Plaid Bag Connection.

These days, I’m “Jen” when I’m in a place where they yell out your name when your order’s ready; perhaps once every few months – hardly grounds for feeling culturally amputated. At least no-one’s telling me I must do something more drastic about the situation, or taking racist liberties with how I want to be identified.

For those who don’t know, my given name is Tseen-Ling. I drop my second name (Ling), and am usually Tseen Khoo. Those who have zealous knowledge of the way Chinese names are traditionally ordered often call me Khoo because they think this is my personal name (with Tseen as my family name). This usually indicates:

a) they don’t know me at all,
b) they don’t know many Malaysians (‘Khoo’ being the ‘Smith’ of Malaysia…), and
c) that I will laugh at them (though I occasionally like the Tom Brown’s Schooldays tone of it).

I know my name is a bit tricky, but please don’t do the following:

  1. Assume that your making up a pronunciation is better than asking me how I pronounce it.
  2. Correct me on how I pronounce my name. This often happens. The ones who usually correct me? Older white guys, many of whom are university Sinophiles (surprise!). I probably have bastardised the pronunciation, but it’s what I answer to, y’know?
  3. Tell me it’s weird, awful, or makes your life hard (makes your life hard?!). I’ve had a neighbour (back in Queensland) tell me that my parents were cruel to give us such WEIRD names. This woman also thought I was the hired help…or maybe a ‘working girl’ (her to me after living next door to us for almost a year: “You actually live here?”).
  4. Get angry at me when I have to correct your spelling of it. Most often, people have to re-start and cross out the “Ch…” they started with.
  5. Presume I’m a “Mr” (or that I’m necessarily male because I’m a “Dr”).
  6. (on the flip-side) Tell me it’s the most gorgeous, amazing name you’ve ever heard. Shyeah.

I’m not precious about my name, and I don’t expect anyone to know how to say it or understand why it is what it is. I think expecting the world in general to be attuned to your particular cultural resonance is a big, vain (in both senses of the word) hope. I also try not to take up too much room on public transport – correlation?

Some folk are appalled that I change my name to something more ‘palatable’; they make me feel like I’ve lost authenticity points. But you know what? I don’t need my everyday to be a constant series of corrections and explanations, a draining and pointless agitation for the sake of another person’s notion of authenticity.

That’s why I sometimes game my name.

I’m not ashamed of my name or intent on ‘whitewashing’ my identity. And just because I’m cool with being “Jen” in an occasional coffee queue? This doesn’t mean “Tzeen”, “Chin” or “Tssen Ko” is ok.

[Oh, the irony of doing a spellcheck on this post + having every instance of my name highlighted as ‘incorrect’…]