I often come across such strange stories in my travels. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s because my energy attracts unusual people, like the time a 14 year old boy in the British Museum approached and shyly asked for my phone number. The scenario ended with me instructing him that if he wished to increase his success rate, he should perhaps choose more age-appropriate subjects for his future flirting.
Another time, two years ago in early Autumn, I was walking into the Pompidou Centre when a refined septuagenarian gentleman with an American accent and a map in his hands stopped me to ask for directions. The conversation ended up lasting over two hours. The subjects ranged from his experiences teaching at Leipzig University to the economics and politics of art history, and covered everything in between. He sighed that the information age has turned us all into strangers, and eventually pled with me to move to New York, where my career would certainly grow beyond my wildest dreams, etc etc. I decided to end the conversation swiftly and made up some pretense to leave.
As we were parting, he asked my name. I said “Nancy” was fine. He replied that Chinese people in Western countries just use an English name to replace their original name, and that he wanted to know my original name. I told him “Nancy” would be easiest to remember, and he told me something that I clearly remember to this day:
“As you travel through foreign lands and foreign cultures, your true name remains dissolved in your blood. Never choose another name just because it’s easy for other people – accommodating them doesn’t require them to truly respect you. Don’t let other people see you as too eager to please. It’s a kind of weakness.
I never saw that gentlemen again. My friends still call me Nancy in private, and I still believe that having an English name is essential – my “original” name is often pronounced in many odd and inconsistent ways. But in public and online, I’ve always used my original name. In this I’ve never changed.
Painting by Nancy Zhang