What’s in a name?

black and white photo of a question mark over someone's face

As many immigrants will agree, it can be frustrating to have a first name that is difficult to pronounce for speakers in your new country. Second generation immigrants can also encounter this frustration, perhaps more frequently because they may or may not be fluent in their parents’ native tongue. For some people, the solution is to create a nickname for their native name that is either short, an easy-to-pronounce anglicism, or chopping their name to one that resembles a common Western name.

In elementary school, a Korean student transferred to our school. Excitement among my classmates was high as we wondered who they were, why they were here, and who would befriend them first. For about an hour, we called him David. By lunchtime, we were calling him by his Korean name Keewan because he was too flustered and overwhelmed by the transition that he kept forgetting “David” referred to him. As it turns out, using his birth name didn’t prove to be too big of a shift for our English-speaking classroom. We were too distracted by his big smile and hearty laugh to care whether he was “David” or “Keewan”.

I have since spoken to other immigrants who came to Canada and were advised to select a “western name” before arriving. The advice often came from family members or friends who had already immigrated to the country. I thought this perspective on “blending in” was really interesting. Albeit picking a new name to sound more western (white) is a plausible solution, it definitely made a lot of immigrants feel like their new “western” name was representing a new identity in a new land.

The discrepancy between having a birth name and an “immigrant name” is quite common among new Canadians.

This made me ponder: what exactly is a name?



I Googled my name recently to see if my WordPress blog would be one of the top hits. In actuality, I found that http://www.juliedam.com was taken by another Julie Dam from the USA. I couldn’t help but peruse her site and feel taken aback by the fact that we had similar interests:

  • Julie Dam from New York has similar career interests as I do but she is more experienced and well-established. I’m still crawling through the budding phase.
  • We’re both passionate about writing and oddly enough, New York’s Julie Dam has a career doing consulting in content strategy and strategic communications—both of which are fields of marketing that interest me greatly.

So given the almost freakish similarities between New York’s Julie Dam and I, how much does a name really define who you are as a person?

Reader, who are you?

Special thanks to Julie Dam from New York for granting permission to be mentioned in this post. It’s a small world after all!