On Using the Western Name Order

Media outlets consistently refer to people with Asian full names in the Eastern name order (i.e. last name, then first name). I soon found that there was a reason behind this: The AP Stylebook, a grammar style guide which most American journalists follow, states that Asian (Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese) names should follow the Eastern name order.

While the Eastern name order is used in aforementioned native languages, things are different for Asian people in the West. Personally, I have always been bothered by this. In the U.S., Asians and Asian Americans today generally prefer using the Western name order (i.e. first name, then last name), even when their first names are romanized from an Asian language. So when I pulled out a news article that referred to me in the Eastern name order, I felt bizarre. In fact, I have never used the Chinese order to address myself in the English context.

So I asked a journalist. He told me that using Chinese names in the Western name order would be a form of racism, as white people don’t reverse their English first and last names upon arrival in China. I absolutely did not know I had been a racist – to myself – my entire life; how ignorant was I!

When one discusses racism, it is crucial to bring the context to the table. Things that are embraced by Asian people living in Asia might deliver offensive messages to Asians in the West.

After coming to the U.S. as a teenager, I decided not to adopt a Westernized name. As time moved on, I realized such decision had an undertone: by choosing Tianyu over Johnathan, I have kept my pride in my ethnic origin but lost an opportunity to make myself more American. However, I questioned myself, what constitutes an ‘American name?’ The eurocentric undertone beneath the widely-accepted interpretation that an ‘American name’ has to be Christian, European, or both, is often unaddressed. In other words, why can’t Tianyu be an ‘American name?’

My name was no longer merely Chinese, but also ‘American.’ I use the Western name order at school, at work, and on official documents. If so, there would be no point of spelling my name in a way different than John Appleseed’s.

I found out by chance an opinion piece by Michelle Tsai from the Slate from a decade ago. Tsai discussed media outlets’ choice of name orders when they mentioned Seung-Hui Cho, a Korean-American mass murderer who later committed suicide. Tsai wrote: ‘… Some Korean-Americans felt media groups were playing up Cho’s foreign-ness, according to the Asian American Journalists Association, which advised reporters to use the American [Western] order.’

The AAJA Guide to Covering Asian America states that while Chinese names usually follow the Eastern name order, ‘many Chinese Americans, however, change the word order to conform to Western practice.’

My suggestion is that journalists, writers, and Wikipedia editors should always ask and respect one’s preference. If Kim Jong Un isn’t Jong Un Kim, and Marco Rubio isn’t Rubio Marco, why would you rearrange the order of my names?

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. © Tianyu M. Fang.
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Author: Tianyu Fang

Tian Fang is a freelance writer and traveler. Follow on Twitter: @tianyuf.