Why I List My Surname First
I get called “Li” a lot on the internet (which I don’t mind, by the way). However, “Li” is not my given name, it’s my surname. But I understand the confusion because I always list it first in my bylines.
I’ve used the byline “Li Charmaine Anne” for a few years now, and it’s occurred to me I’ve never explained it publicly.
For starters, my full legal name is “Charmaine Anne Li.”
But “Charmaine Anne Li” is not my only name. I have three.
Name #1: Charmaine Anne Li
I quite like my name. And I feel very lucky that I do because not every kid likes their name. Anyone who’s met me knows that I’m not the most feminine person around, but I quite like the contrast of my feminine name against my not-so-feminine presentation.
I was named by my mother, who originally considered the name “Cordelia” because she was inspired by the character’s filial piety in King Lear. But she settled on Charmaine because “the Charmaines I’ve known seemed alright.”
“Charmaine” is a somewhat rare name in the English-speaking world, but it’s not that uncommon in Hong Kong and Sinosphere communities. There is a Hong Kong model named Charmaine Li and a Hong Kong actress named Charmaine Sheh. I’ve also found a Toronto-born (just like me!) freelance writer by the name of Charmaine Li (if you’re reading this, hi!). And I’ve met my fair share of Charmaines, Sharmaines, and even a Shermaine once.
It’s a running joke of mine that Chinese and Asian parents tend to choose from a handful of English names for their kids: Tiffany, Vivian, Jessica, and Amy are popular, and I’ve met like five Daniel Kims. Still, despite being popular with Hong Kongers, “Charmaine” is an eye-catching name.
Name #2: 李倩文
In 2007, my Chinese name became official because I finally applied for a Hong Kong Identity Card. Before my HKID, my Chinese name was not listed on any official documents. My parents simply gave it to me because they thought it proper that a baby of Chinese descent should have a Chinese name.
My Chinese name is 李倩文. The 李 (lei5) is my surname. 倩文 (sin6 man4) is my given name. (The numbers indicate Cantonese tone.) In Chinese, surnames are always listed first.
Most of the other Chinese kids I grew up with had their Chinese name serve as their middle name, so I am an exception. I think my mother just liked the rhythm of “Charmaine Anne.” And perhaps my mother thought a fully anglicized given name would give me an easier time in an Anglo society.
So, what does my Chinese name mean, you must be asking? Well, not much to be honest. I was named after Cantopop singer Sally Yeh. Her name (葉蒨文) is pronounced the same as mine except for the surname.
Put together, the characters of my name don’t mean much, but they’re not uninteresting on their own:
- 李 is the second most common Chinese surname and one of the most common surnames in the world. There are many theories on its origins.
- 倩 means elegance, prettiness, refinement.
- 文 means literature.
(I’m a writer now, so I guess my parents got that last character right!)
Name #3: Li Charmaine Anne
I’ve been using Li Charmaine Anne as a byline for several years. I like it because it’s a) recognizable; b) stays true to my legal name; and c) by listing my surname first, I honour the traditions of my ancestors while staying true to myself.
I’m bicultural. I was raised by one culture (Hong Kong Chinese) and live in the world of another (Canadian). Every day, I oscillate between these disparate cultures, and I often feel as if I am two beings — I’m one person at home, another at work, school, and out with my peers.
These two cultures are sometimes in tension. One is fiercely individualistic, the other strongly collectivist. I look like I would fit in with the Eastern side of me, yet I remain uncomfortably unfamiliar with many of its philosophies.
In my Western, Canadian community, I am an obvious minority. Yet on most days, I feel more familiar with this society. I grew up under its educational system and work within its corporate culture. After a lifetime in the West, being “Western” has become my natural, default setting.
Yet I feel a responsibility to my roots. My grasp of Cantonese is parsecs behind my grasp of English, but my first words were in that language. And if it weren’t for the support, encouragement, and work ethic thrust upon me by my family and ancestors, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
The least I can do is give that part of myself a knowing wink. Which is why I write my byline with my surname first — it reminds me of where and who I come from.
Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel, a contemporary YA about queer Asian skater girls. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no Medium subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.