International student struggles with identity

Code switching – especially when it comes to names – in the international student community causes internal dilemmas


Yushuo Wang

Yushuo Wang was a major contributor to the Life section this year.

 “Which do you prefer, ‘Olivia’ or ‘Yushuo’?” a professor asked me face-to-face. 

Silence. “Um…”

I should have been used to this question after filling out so many Google Forms that asked about my preferred first name. However, this time there was somebody actually looking into my eyes and asking for an answer, and it took me many seconds to respond.

Unexpectedly, I ended up going with “Olivia”. I could feel self-deception engulfing me the very moment the word flowed out of my mouth. A few seconds was just too short of a time for me to ponder the question, and I hate letting people wait. 

So is “Olivia” just low-hanging fruit for anyone of a different race than me, or is it an answer that actually satisfies me? And where is the place for “Yushuo”, my given name? I didn’t find myself really thinking about these questions and coming up with a consistent answer until writing this piece. My interpretation of the phrase “preferred name” is so unclear — I missed the chance to dig it up because of dismissing the question. 

Too often, I go by “Olivia” for others’ convenience, especially professors who prefer doing roll call attendance. It’s not that I don’t like teaching them to pronounce my Chinese name — it’s just strange, and maybe the strangeness comes from within. 

Imagine me sitting in a classroom, hearing the professor call everyone’s name without a hitch. I’m ready. Ready for an “uh” or even a full stop when it comes to mine. 

“Yushou? Yuosho?” 

Shall I say “yes” or correct the pronunciation? I can hear two voices debating in my mind. I end up with “Olivia” while the whole classroom is staring at me, and I’m guessing their thoughts: “What’s that awkward pronunciation?” 

How much I wish I could be like other students and restate my given name, correct the stress on syllables or go by a nickname. But I just can’t! Even if the pronunciation sounds similar, the tone is still important: the level and oblique tones in Chinese. It is “Yûshuò” to be precise.

I’ll forever remember how somebody got me misty-eyed when sending me a text, “Happy birthday Yushuo!!!!” That’s a lump of sugar.

— Yushuo Wang


All of my sheepish experiences only make my given name weigh more on me. Although I used to dislike it because of the mismatch between its boyish meaning and my actual personality, I find myself passionately — even proudly — writing it down in front of my foreign friends to whom I send Chinese postcards or handicrafts. I resist changing my Gmail name to “Olivia Wang”, and I often write two names on homework assignments. 

These actions do not stem from wanting to show off that I have two names. Instead, it goes back to where I’m from and who I am. 

Like many other Chinese kids, I received my given name from my grandma sitting on a stool — wearing her reading glasses — flipping through a thick Chinese dictionary and searching for a word to define me. The second character of my 3-word-name stayed the same as my elder cousins. 

As I become an adult, I feel myself comparing my given name to others’ names less and less. I know how my name was bestowed upon me from an older generation, how thrilled and delighted they were when they got the chance to delineate a bright future for a new child. 

Does all of this mean that I don’t like “Olivia”? Absolutely not! I like people greeting me warmly and loudly saying, “Hey, Olivia! How are you doing?”, but I’m just not familiar with my English name like I am with my given name.

Now, I’m kind of thankful to those Google Forms. It is out of respect, not tradition, to ask others’ preferred first names and pronouns. In my view, the word “preferred” means mutual understanding, and there’s always a lot we can learn from each other. For me, “preferred” allows me to represent myself in class or friend circles but also to hold back and let others have the floor. 

Perhaps this is why I go by “Olivia” and like people who feel comfortable pronouncing it. But I’ll forever remember how somebody got me misty-eyed when sending me a text, “Happy birthday Yushuo!!!!” That’s a lump of sugar.