What’s in a Name? First Names, Last Names and Naming Conventions Across Cultures


When I sign my name, I am Linda Li.

woman, man, child, family in front of stone church I don’t have a maiden name, and I didn’t change my name when I got married 15 years ago. My child carries my husband’s last name. Our friends know to address us with a hyphen between our last names on mail. I identify as a feminist but my choice of last name has more to do with my culture than my feminism. Naming conventions offer a nuanced look into one’s culture. 

Do you know in many Asian cultures, women don’t change their last names after they get married?

And many Asian cultures put their family name (last name) first, followed by their given name? Plus, we don’t have middle names. We have a surname (last name) and given name (first name.) For example, my last name is Li 李. My parents gave me the first name Lai Nga 麗雅. My Chinese name is Li Lai Nga 李麗雅. Linda is my English name that I chose when I was in school. For the sake of immigration paperwork, I become Linda Lainga Li.

In Burmese culture, there is no first or last name. Everyone has one name. For example, Me Me and Htin San. The famous Aung San Suu Kyi (the President of Myanmar) is named after her father, Aung San. All of his children have his name as a part of their names, but there is no order, just a name.

girl eats noodles with chopsticks

Some African cultures choose children’s last names from a variety of sources that have nothing to do with their family.

For example, I met a girl from Tanzania whose last name is a former president’s first name because he was elected when she was born.  None of her family members have the same last name. That really confuses a lot of people in the US, such as teachers and doctors.

In Somali culture, there is no family name. Children are given a first name which is followed by the father’s or grandfather’s first name. For example, Abdi Hassan’s son, Mohamad, would be Mohamad Abdi.  

Many cultures don’t follow Western naming conventions. Those are just a few examples.

Many of us take our names for granted. We follow the rules and norms for naming conventions in our society and don’t usually question them. I think names are a form of art, a story, a representation of cultures, a statement, an identity, and a belief system. There is a lot more to a name than one might guess.


Many of our names have meanings. My Chinese name 麗雅 means beautiful and elegant. My daughter’s Chinese name 雪兒 means snow child because we live in Vermont, and my husband is a die-hard snowboarder.


“Linda” was given to me by my brother who is 10 years my senior because when I entered grade school, I needed an English name. So, I asked my teenage brother for help. Years later, I found out “Linda” was his high school sweetheart!


Refusing to change my last name doesn’t mean that I don’t love my husband. We’ve been together for 20 years. I believe in love and loyalty, and I don’t need his last name to show it.

A Statement

One of the most famous examples of using a name for a statement would be Kim Jong Un. His surname is Kim, not Un. Unlike immigrants and refugees, Kim Jong Un doesn’t have to yield to the American naming system, he can keep his name as it is and no one can give him a hard time or say no to him because he needs a last name for a government ID.


Scroll down to see my picture. I feel like I would lose a part of my Chinese identify on paper if I used the name Linda Gaisser (adopting my husband’s last name.)


I hope no one would disagree that our names are really an important part of our cultures. Our names have so much history. Our name system does not only tell us about our heritage but also the politics and social structure.

family, Abraham Lincoln statue, Washington DC

Learning about other people’s names and naming conventions also helps me to respect their cultures, to understand where they come from, and appreciate the diversity that they bring in to my life.





Guest Blogger: Linda Li

woman hugs catLinda was born and raised in Hong Kong and came to America 20 years ago. She became a Chinese-English interpreter and translator in 2004. She notices many families struggling with raising bicultural and bilingual children in Vermont. The cultural clash is real. She’s passionate about using her own experience to help other families. She’s now a licensed social worker and she works at the Community Health Center of Burlington as a Pediatric Social Worker and Child Therapist.



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