What's Your Story

Every name is a 'Canadian name'

Joe, Jiikwis, Jse-Che. On Celebrate Your Name Week, Jse-Che Lam reflects on how she came to love her unusual name.

"We are a nation of Shrevalis, Hamsas, Kurias, Bodes, Danijelas and Mei Lings"

In Cantonee, Jse-Che Lam's first name is comprised of two different characters that sound almost identical. To the English-speaker's ear, it sounds like "Chi-Chi." (R. Wener)

The first full week of March marks Celebrate Your Name Week: an annual event started by onomatology hobbyist Jerry Hill in mid-'90s to honour the origins and diversity of names.

Naming traditions have long fascinated Jse-Che Lam, who wrote in to share her reflection on the meaning of her unique moniker, and why she considers it a Canadian name, without qualifiers.


Imagine growing up Chinese-Canadian, but having all your friends's parents think you are Mexican.

I can explain — but first, allow me to introduce myself.

My name is Jse-Che.

As is the case with most Chinese names, mine is hyphenated. It's two different characters (之子) that sound almost identical. Because Cantonese is a tonal language with six different tones, non-Cantonese speakers have a hard time picking up on the distinction.

My name was never anglicized like the other immigrant Chinese kids of my generation, so I am known as "Chi-Chi" outside of my Cantonese speaking family.

Boy, what a name

My paternal grandfather named me. He loved classical Chinese poetry and took the phrase from one of his readings. But my name often confuses those who are literate in Chinese characters, or even in kanji, because one character denotes it as a boy's name.

(I won't get into the importance of having male children in Asian cultures, but I do wonder if this was done to ensure that all subsequent siblings would be boys. This is indeed the belief that one of my great aunts holds to this day.)

Jse-Che proudly displays her work of art. Her name is spelled phonetically as "Chee-Chee" on the canvas. (Yiu Tong Lam)

At four-years-old, I was registered for junior kindergarten at Sprucecourt PS in downtown Toronto. In those days, the school office staff would often select a name for a child whose birth name wasn't anglo. This would certainly explain why so many of my Asian friends ended up with names that alluded to generations past.

Girls in my peer group named Alice, Mabel or Agnes were most likely named after a favourite aunt when their ethnic name proved to be too daunting for registration purposes.

I don't think that my parents ever thought about picking a name that would blend in at a Canadian school. And since it was my headstrong grandmother who took me to my first day of school, I can just imagine her telling the translator that I already had a name and that no other would do.

Supply teachers would inevitably mispronounce it and over time, my name has morphed into different forms. Childhood friends, as they are prone to doing, nicknamed me "Cheech" because there was actually a kid in our school with the last name Chong.

Don't get me wrong. I love my name (now), but it has led to some amusing moments.  

The incredible Chi-Chi

For years, my friend's dad thought I was Mexican because there was a well advertised chain of restaurants called Chi-Chi's. It was the big name in Mexican food before Taco Bell swept the nation.

Back in the '80s, when people still had landlines, you always spoke to the head of the household — usually the person who paid the utility bills — before you could talk to your friend. A voice on a phone betrays very little. This poor guy was very confused when we met in person and I was not the Mexican-Canadian teen that he had envisioned.  

"Your friend is not Mexican," he told his daughter.

"I never said she was Mexican. You just assumed," she replied.

One of Chi-Chi's now defunct Toronto locations was on Front Street near St. Lawrence Market. And ironically, if I want to visit a Chi-Chi's now, I'd have to travel to China where there are still several franchises.

I've learned over time to embrace these moments. Having a unique name serves its purpose. Someone shouts "Chi-Chi!" across a crowded subway platform? Yes, that's probably for me.

Canadian names in 2017

It has taken a long time for me to come to terms with having an ethnically unique name, but it helps that I'm in good company. Today in Canada, we are a nation of Shrevalis, Hamsas, Kurias, Bodes, Danijelas, Mei Lings and so on.

Jse-Che as a baby. When her newest family member is born, they will encounter a whole new landscape of Canadian names. (Courtesy of Jse-Che Lam)
Plus, my connection with my name has matured over the years.

I'm happy to know that in Igbo, Chichi is a common female name. Which is probably why my Nigerian friend, Bode, has never tripped over my name.

I have a Twitter pal who just became a first time dad in December. He and his wife named their son Jiikwis which means "first son" in Anishinaabemowin. I know how important it is to them to have a traditional name for their baby.

Children's names are becoming more diverse as people feel comfortable embracing their cultural roots and as Canada looks at decolonizing its place names as part of the path towards reconciliation. 

In a few weeks, I'll be an aunt for a second time.

I'll love this new niece or nephew regardless of the name chosen. This child will have two names — an English one as well as a Chinese one that my mom will choose. No doubt, the Chinese name will be chosen for its auspiciousness and unique nature. One day we hope the child acknowledges it as part of his or her ancestral legacy.

We look at the names of the people who call this land home and we can geographically trace places of origin in so many different directions.- Jse-Che Lam

Canadian identity is a complex one. We can look at the names of the people who call this land home. We can geographically trace places of origin in so many different directions.

Even if your name is Joanna, Michelle or Jason, know that with your name comes the story of a place and a people who thought long and hard about who they wanted you to be.

What's your story? What defines Canada for you? Is there a time that you were proud to be Canadian, or perhaps a time you felt disappointed? Is there a place, person, or event in your life that sums up what being Canadian is to you? Email us your story at 2017@cbc.ca.

About the Author

Jse-Che Lam

Jse-Che Lam, at the age of one, came to Canada from Hong Kong with her parents. Her interests include stories about immigration, urban issues, and all matters that concern Canadian-produced art, literature, and politics.

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