Week 4: Say my Name – Hong Kong Chinese Names in English

Reflect on how Hong Kong Chinese names are misrepresented in the UK

“Chi – Chi – is Chi here?”.. “Here.. (unreluctantly)”

I bet the majority of students from Hong Kong have experienced this – Coming to a foreign country, speaking a foreign language, being called a foreign name that took you days to recognise and internalise. Yup, you are here, away from home.

Stripping away the sentiments, I can’t help but be surprised (perhaps I shouldn’t be!) how most of the times (mainly Hong Kong) Chinese names are wrongly represented in English – given the intertwined (colonial) history between Britain and Hong Kong.

These mistakes in naming replicates themselves in educational settings, universities, administrative data and health records. Practically speaking, these mistakes induce higher error rates in records, and hence lower the probability that these information could be used to advise research or public policy – a form of research inequity that perpetuates health inequity in society. If we truly are marching towards an inclusive, more equal society, I do think the first, and the least thing we need to do is to get the names right. Here’s a quick simplified tutorial.

Chinese Name Short Tutorial

In (modern) Chinese, full name (姓名) comprises of a surname (姓) and a forename (名). There is no equivalent of middle name in Chinese.

Surnames typically consist of 1 character, up to 9 characters (only 1 in the Chinese Surname Dictionary)! The 1996 Chinese Surname Dictionary collated 11,936 Surnames, where over 90% of the Chinese population share 120 common surnames (all of them consist of 1 character), and the top 5 surnames (Wang, Li, Zhang, Liu, Chen) take up 30% of the population. As for forenames, they usually consists of 1 or 2 characters, with no upper limits on the number of characters. During the infamous Salmon Chaos discount event in Taiwan, a person has changed their legal name to 50-character-long(49 character forename)!

From the national names report in China 2020, over 90% of Chinese full names consists of 3 characters, as proportion of 2-character names dropped to around 6%, and 4-or-above-character names has a total of around 3%.

Problems with English Representation of Chinese Names

Cantonese and Mandarin pronounces the same character differently – hence their English translation differs. Take my surname as an example, 林, is pronounced more closely to “Lam” in Cantonese than “Lin” in Mandarin (e.g., The NBA player Jeremy Lin). This variation of translation tells us a bit more about where individuals come from – that’s good, as long as people consistently report and record them.

A big issue lies with the forenames. Forename translations in China and Taiwan uses Mandarin Pinyin, which is (sort of) an established method to pronounce Mandarin characters. This is not without it’s limitations, for example, some characters like 呂 (Lǚ) could not be represented using English alphabets. There is no accurate alphabetical representation of Cantonese, mostly due to it’s complexity of having 9 tones and 6 modes/pitches, and that a lot of the words do not share a similar pronunciation mechanism with English. The resemblance between Cantonese-English is much lower than that of Mandarin-English.

Another key difference is that, Mandarin-translated English forenames are usually presented as the same word. For example, 鄧小平 is represented as Deng (Surname) Xiaoping (Forename). Cantonese-translated English on the other hand retains the independence of the forename characters. For example, 鄭月娥 is represented as Cheng (Surname) Yuet-ngor (Forename), where the hyphen is sometimes omitted as space. In the current naming registry in the UK, a lot of the times Cantonese-translated English forenames are truncated and treated as a combination of forenames and middle-names. For example, Yuet-Ngor are truncated as “Yuet”, and “Ngor” recognised as their non-existent middle-name.

How is this still happening in the UK today? Have they not consulted any Hong Kong Chinese? This leads to a key barrier to EDI- power dynamics in Public Patient Involvement. There probably are formal or informal checks with Chinese-speaking people to see whether the existing way of representing names are appropriate, however, these issues might not have been dealt with. We have to be mindful of the power dynamics in which these conversation have happened, in the past and in present. A partial sacrifice of the name and humiliation to the ruling, (White) decision-makers to “earn” a moment of shared laughter might seem to be ridiculous, but it makes a lot of sense amongst the exiled, minoritized communities. Heck, lands were occupied and unequal treaties were signed for the same reasons.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Hong Kong Chinese. It is quite common that people change their naming traditions, willingly or non-willingly, when they enter the country, for example, Vietnamese flip their forename and surnames etc. Speaking from experience, I know there are many occasions that my friends tried to correct their tutors on how their names should be called at Universities. Unless they switch to a “proper” western name, some tutors would insist to use the “name that is recorded on the papers”. The less brave would persevere, like many of our predecessors, to be referred to as a foreign name, even foreign to ourselves.

Glad to see the movement on using the preferred pronouns in communications – I hate to say this but it’s always easier to promote when White people is a beneficiary of any social movement. So my plea is, perhaps it’s also time to pay the long due respect to the un-named, attention to the unseen, and voices to the unheard.

Reflecting on Ethnicity in Research – Challenging The Default

Reflecting on how Ethnicity is researched in academia, challenging “defaults practices”

Listen to the blog here

From the latest release of admin-based ethnicity statistics (ONS), it was shown that, across several administrative data source, there are a significant proportion of people having reported to belong to more than 1 ethnic group.

Similar evidence of changing ethnic identification was demonstrated in Understanding Society @usociety youth survey in young people aged between 10-15.

Ethnicity is a dynamic historic-cultural construct, and for most people from ethnic minorities groups, it changes overtime. In research/policy-based evidence making, ethnic groups are often lumped together (#BAME…), assumed to be constant, and you can only pick 1. It bears the question, how come the default practice in research is to treat ethnicity as time-invariant?

You might notice that – Changing ethnic identity is very uncommon among people reported to belong to White British groups.

And rightfully so! At the time when the population is predominantly white British (or that people from other groups are mostly slaves or seen as objects), research is predominantly initiated by white British, it is reasonable that ways of research are agreed for and within white British.

I am not saying it is a bad thing to have a consistent ethnic identification! But this lived-experience of an invariable ethnicity by white British groups has dominated the knowledge generation process and structure. And this assumption, rightfully based on white British experience was then assumed to be an universal experience.

It became The Default.

I did not recognise the issues with The Default.

I thought it was a consensus, as it was widely replicated and taught to next generations of researchers. I still do the same in my own research: treating ethnicity as lump sum categories, do not change over time.

And perhaps this IS the manifestation of systemic #oppression/#racism. Paraphrasing Dr. Celestin Okoroji: @CellyRanks shared at @kcsamh #PartneringforChange event yesterday (21/6), we need to recognise the hegemonic knowledge and evidence generation mechanisms in this society, and challenge them. (See my thread to capture part of the talk here)

It became The Default.
(Photo by Pedro Figueras on Pexels.com)

The next question is: “how” – what can we do, if we think we should challenge the default – or at least suggest an alternative of how “reality” is conceived.
I have 2 thoughts – (please share yours with me too!)
1) Community-Centric Research
2) Improving Methods

(1) Community-Centric Research means to put local communities – people – at the heart of research. It is about valuing relationship building, and demonstrate impact valued by local people. It is one form of Public Patient* Involvement I suppose, but more. This should be embedded in how funding is planned and commissioned.

(2) Improving Methods
This is one goal of my PhD project (with @Klharron & @rob_aldridge), to improve research equity, to face the biases in “default practices”, more specifically in the practice of data linkage, interpretation and public health policy decision making.

This is new to me – and I am empowered to see so many pioneers on this path. Change can only come from a collective effort. Do share your thoughts and idea with me here or via email!

希望是本無所謂有,無所謂無的。 這正如地上的路;其實地上本沒有路,走的人多了,也便成了路。

魯迅先生 – 故鄉

There is no such thing as Hope, it’s just like the path. There was no path. The path is manifested when thousands of people walk through.

Mr Lu Xun – Hometown
Photo by Julia Volk on Pexels.com

(end)

Originally tweeted by Joseph Lam (@Jo_Lam_) on 22nd June 2022 as a Twitter Thread. Minor edits and expanded on points without character limits.

Twitter Spiel: Reflection on Gender, Race and Power in Academia

Gender, Race and power in Academia: Complexity of Intersectionality.

Figure 1. Tweet Captured from Prof X’s Twitter feed on 28/4/2022, 10:18 am, UK Time

The tweet above is tweeted by an Asian American women professor in sociology, Prof X, who serves as the director for the Centre for Research on Social Inequality. My understanding of the original post (OP)’s intention is to invite discussion and reflection on the inequity and (micro) aggression directed towards women of racialized communities in academia; in this case, from a student.

However, Twitter reacted slightly different from what the OP expected. At first glance, a lot of people saw this as an act of oppression and public shaming of the student. I thought we Twitter user must have learned by now that 280 characters is just too little to paint the full picture, and to be kind before jumping to conclusions. Prof X very soon found herself at the receiving end of all sorts of criticisms and degrading comments on her character and professionalism. This is an unfortunate case study to look at how intersectionality plays out in real life, how the role of race is dismissed for minority groups in power, and the lack of solidarity within racialised communities.

Photo by Armin Rimoldi on Pexels.com

I am summarising a few common comments (filtering out straight up insulting ones) under the original tweet:

Response 1: “It is a right question to ask!”

This response highlights that it is important to find out about potential supervisors’ skills, styles and whether it matches with them before a student decide to work with them. I think this is indubitably true. However, this comment missed the OP’s point. The problem is two folds. It was never about whether the student should ask the question, but the subjective experience of an Asian American women’s qualifications and capabilities being constantly questioned in academia. It is not about whether the question is appropriate, or even how that question was asked, it is about the cumulative experience of being treated as lesser because of their gender and race. In Ljeoma Oluo’s book, So You Want To Talk About Race (2018), she illustrated clearly the case of how racism cannot be reduced to isolated events. What is experienced and reported in this tweet is merely the tip of the ice-burg, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Many comments along this line went on to discuss “Whether or not” this question should be asked, such as:

“It’s that the student asked a professor if she was qualified (like an interviewer) instead of asking if they were a good fit (like an advisee). The tone and phrasing can feel insulting because it questions competence instead of appealing to the specificity of one’s expertise.”

But the OP is not really talking about the wordings. It is about TO WHOM this question is asked, and what this reflects. In case this was not clear, a fellow Asian American colleague of Prof X shared in the comments, but it did not turn the tides of toxic criticisms towards the OP.

Figure 2. Tweet reply under OP. Captured 28/04/2022, 10:21am, UK time.

Instead of recognizing the racial and gender inequity that lingered for far too long, instead of believing that the OP is, indeed, about race, instead of reading carefully what the OP is trying to get to, Prof X was torn into pieces. This blue bird is definitely a carnivore, beware.

Response 2: “Why would you shame your student in an open platform?”

This points to a different problem. Where is the proper place talk about racism?  When is the proper time to talk about racism? Should this be discussed on a public domain where people can share their learnings, or should this be a private conversation between the affiliated parties? We may never have a good-enough answer for everyone for the questions above. However, the problem I see here is the need for people to police on how these issues should or can be discussed. This act of policing itself is part of the attitude that perpetuates structural and casual racism. This suppresses minorities groups to share their lived experiences on a day-to-day basis. Yes, the OP did not spell out word by word that the student is sexist/racist; yes, the OP tried to find excuses for such questions to be asked given it’s unpleasant manner; I see these are the result of similar policing on when can people from racialised or minority groups talk about their lived experience, such that we pitifully comply with conscious choice of self-censoring and humour to cover up our pain. This is not a problem of platform; this is a problem of power.

Reflections

I think the presenting case here is a lively example of the complexity of intersectionality, when power and race coincide. A lot of the criticisms following the lines of Response 1 hold the notion that, the professor is in the position of power, it is hence an act of oppression. When the OP talked about her particular interaction with a student, they are automatically assumed to be the oppressor, wherever the platform may be, on whatever topic, in whatever context. The position dictates everything. Perhaps the OP would be much less controversial if the question did not come from a student, but from a colleague, or a member of the public, where public discourse favours OP’s position. Perhaps the OP would be much less controversial if the OP is a white male professor, where public discourse favours the criticisms. This reductionist way of thinking succeeds only in applauding a superficial understanding of “social justice”, but in reality often works against their intention, in worse case, a valorised, covert form of racism.

This is an example in how intersectionality plays out, in situations where systems of powers seem to operate in contradictory manners. When people from minority races are in a position of power, people assumed that their position of power would always overshadow their race, and that racism does not seem to, and should not affect how they interact with the world. The emergence of Critical Race Theory is a response to exactly these situations. Our case here exemplifies that we’ve still got a long way to go.

East Asian are the majority ethnic group in the world, but we are never the majority in these contexts. We are not white, not brown, not black. We are a distant majority group that was left out of the discussion. We are the ones that are stuck in the middle. We do not need to indulge in a competition of whom the most deprived group is, it is meaningless; however, we do need solidarity from other racialised communities to stand with us when we face racism, sexism, as other groups do. Please be kind.

Thinking of you Prof X, hope you are well.

“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listenslow to speak and slow to become angry,”

James 1:19

From Binary to Spectrum: A Thought Experiment

Saw this Tweet on Jul 31, 2020 by Twitter User: @ravenscimaven

I really don’t like being labeled “BIPOC*” y’all. I don’t know what it is, but I’ve had more people these past few months refer to me with an acronym than ever in my life and it doesn’t sit right with me. I wonder, how do LGBT+ folks feel about being identified with an acronym?

@ravenscimaven on Twitter

*Black, Indigenous and People of Colour

I’ve first encountered the term BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) when I first arrived in the UK. I never liked the term, as it was used and discussed as if the experience of ethnic minorities in the UK are similar/comparable. I appreciate the motivation to raise awareness and fight for the rights of the minorities. Yet I can’t help to feel elements of tokenistic labels in the imprecise languages around the topic. Why create this label BAME, when you can just describe – for example, Black Caucasian – and acknowledge the differences between this group and, say Black Caribbean?

The question then shifted from category of ethnicity to sexual orientation – whether the label of LGBT+ is identified by people of these orientations. In the current age, this comparison is appropriate in sense that, a person can identify their belongingness to their identities, based on their intuition, affection and resolution. Yet I think there is a slight difference between the two, as the latter is described as a spectrum is a varying index on a 2D scalar field; while the former is conceived as categories.

I think my question is, what qualifies the latter to be a spectrum, instead of groups in a wide array of categories? What are the 2 ends of the scale? Is a spectrum specifically used to encourage us to reject binary categories? Bunch of categories sprung up in my mind, I’d invite readers to help with this thought experiment and classify, which would be spectrums vs categories.

Ethnicity – Nationality – Mental Health – Political Philosophy

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Pexels.com

A Corresponding Tweet from Twitter User: @thecrobe caught my attention.

I do not mind being grouped into the queer community (usually). What I DO dislike is when it is used for performative action by someone doesn’t understand the nuances in the community (and does not educate themselves).

@thecrobe on Twitter

From this user’s experience, I am tempted to think: Rejecting existing binary categories doesn’t matter – discovering the new identity matters. Whether such category (within a spectrum) exist in the past doesn’t matter, but whether there is scope in the present to allow the development of character to this label matters. It is not the half-hearted belongingness to these labels that elicited negative feelings amongst the labelled, but the movements that attempted to create history, culture and character around that single ambiguous label/category – that failed to echo with these groups.

If this is the case, the central aim of the advocates – for whichever group – should shift away from proving that some people are different, and stop putting people into more complicated categories. We already know that. But to help create an enabling environments, such that these individuals can explore their individual identities to the fullest.

Voices from people with lived experience MUST stay at the centre of all advocative movements, research and policy-making. For the sake of the individuals, the community and humanity.

A Mental Health Enabling Society

Discussions of mental health cannot exist in a pure biological realm without considering how it is intersectionally embedded within our political and economic structures. There is mounting evidence on the social causation and social drift effects of poverty and poor mental health. It is the day-to-day lived-experience, negligence of the structure, disproportioned power and relationships – both historic and contemporary – that constructs the patterns of mental illness in our society (Nancy Krieger) – which shape the niche where people survive with mental illnesses (Rochell Burgess).

In Hong Kong, the government has invested on destigmatisation of mental illness – yet most work appeared to go south – but that is only to be expected whn mental health is viewed with a poorly focused lens, with healthcare, social welfare, housing & labour departments working in silos. Still awaiting evaluation reports from multi million dollars campaigns.

There is an extent destigmatisation workshops and talks are going to help, when the whole societal narrative has been horrendously stagnant. When people with mental illness continue to be ignored in work and pension system, struggling in underfunded and underresourced psychiatric care systems, and unsupported by community care running purely on charities by churches and NGOs. What, then, is the government’s role in building a mental health enabling society?

Photo by Max Mishin on Pexels.com

“What is promoted as fiscal discipline is a political choice. A political choice that deepens the already open and bloody wounds of the poor and precarious….But austerity is also a social contract. People accept severe restraints in public spending, actively in democracies or passively in autocracies, because they accept the unpalatable prescription of abstinence…”

“…Yet the public too has a choice. And they are exercising that choice in countries across the globe……After a decade of cutting back the reach of government, the public is now demanding a stronger and more generous state. The (social) contract authorising austerity has been torn up…” Richard Horton (2017).

Ethics lies at the heart of policy-making. Open dialogue and knowledge exchange is essential in developing the consensual ethics standards that drive attitude change and destigmatisation. Ability to identify strengths locally, ensuring safe social spaces and partnership is indispensable in vitalising these ethical standards in policy making. These are what we can do – speak, act, adapt and live truthfully to your beliefs – the fruit of democracy.

Yet all these must align with a wider narrative that the Hong Kong Government listen to her people, and reflect her observations through the budget plans. There would be much more leveraging and bargaining in-between, precisely a role of the elected members in the LegCo. Change is not impossible.

I often end with brief remarks of encouragement – I’ll do the same here – A Change is gonna coming.