What’s in a Name? Navigating Colonial Intimacies Across Disparate Lands and Time

By: Fiona Cheuk (University of Toronto)       Theme 1

I’m a person with many names. One name is in English, one name is in Chinese that morphs across three dialects: Cantonese, Mandarin, and my paternal language Hokkien. There are literally worlds of meaning contained in my multiple names. They are layered and bleed, between linguistic, cultural, territorialized worlds and temporalities. In this paper, I use autoethnographic tools to reflect on the different uses of my names as grounded sites for theorizing colonial connections across disparate lands. By using my names as a starting point, the relationships of my layered names and the meanings they gain when contextualized to the place I was born in that is currently entangled in the “after”-maths of decolonization; the lands my ancestors traveled from; and the Canadian settler-colonized lands that I currently reside in.


My English name is Fiona. It is the name I use most often. It is a name I chose when I was five years old and had only been in Canada for two years, without any attention to the meaning of that name. It was a name I chose to replace the name my sister gave to me, in honour of her beloved cabbage patch kid doll. A doll she still has, with thick curly cinnamon brown hair, big blue eyes, and fair skin. Despite being on all my identity cards, my passport, my student ID, my bank card, my credit card: it is a name absent from my birth certificate. It is a name in the language of the British colonizers of Hong Kong, the place in which I was born. It is a name that ironically enough, literally bears the semiotics of Whiteness as it apparently means fair and white. Just like the doll whose namesake I originally held, before being overwritten with Fiona.

Scratching the Surface

The other first name “寧” pronounced phonetically as “Ling” in Cantonese, “Nung” in Mandarin, is colloquially referred to as my “Chinese” name in my experiences growing up in Canada. I don’t know the sound of my name in my father’s language. It was given to me at birth and lovingly chosen by my parents to mean roughly calm, tranquility, and peace. My knowledge is limited, but I do know that traditional Chinese characters work differently than English characters. A single word is often a composite of other words that contain meaning on its own and is used to signify the categories to which the word belongs. For example, “口” which means mouth on its own, is used to signify a word that has to do with speaking. “寧” can be broken down to mean a roof, a solitary man, heart, and a bowl. Couple with my family name “卓”, pronounced Cheuk (Churk soft k) in Cantonese and Zhuo (Dwuaw) in Mandarin, which means greatness, can be broken down to “up”, “day”, and “ten,” can create a vivid image of a man standing under a roof holding a bowl with his heart watching the sun rise up and the day begin.

The fact that I only have two characters to my name is uncommon to Hong Kong people who typically have 3-4 characters and is much more common in mainland China.  While I know the pronunciation of my name in both Cantonese (my mother’s tongue) and Mandarin I don’t use the latter. Not just because I grew up in a Cantonese speaking household, but there was always a sense of inappropriateness to using Mandarin pronunciations of my name.  From an early age, I learnt through my name uses about how the tensions between Hong Kong and mainland China play out in everyday life. However, it has only been recently that I began to recognize the colonial tensions underlying these different valuations of my multiple names. Particularly why it was always acceptable to use my English name everywhere I went, but not my Chinese names. Why it was acceptable to use my Cantonese Chinese name, and English name, but not my mandarin one in Hong Kong when it was a British colony. Through my name experiences, I wonder about how a century plus of education and government systems designed by Anglo speaking colonial powers does make a difference in norms around name use and respectability. I have yet to hear my name in my father’s tongue.

Thus, my two character name that I know by three separate dialects marks the division in my heritage between lands in the Fujian province within China from which my father’s family fled; lands that my maternal grandparents fled from in the Canton province which had witnessed the first Opium War and had been under Japanese occupation when they fled; and Hong Kong as a territory (and people) that had been part of China but then was made a British colony under unequal treaties.

Bleeding through Layers of my Names

The political significance behind my English name as something that is acquired to fit into Canadian white settler society and as my main name within the spaces that I travel through, reflects my embodied relationship to both Hong Kong which was a British colony at the time of my birth, and Canada as a current settler-colonial territory to which I reside as an immigrant.

For the former, it both reflects the dominance of British colonial power over my subjectivity as a Chinese Hong Kong citizen in that it is effectively a palimpsest, a process that overwrites my original Chinese name and identity alongside the nation to which my body was rooted to. Its nature as a name acquired in addition to my birth name also reflects my position as a person of Chinese ancestry, who was born within the same lands of my ancestors but is marked as a “British Special Territory Citizen.” The presence of my Chinese name on that identity card that marks me as such, also signifies the continuous process of overwriting my embodied identity and the nations to whom my body belongs to.

For the latter, Fiona as a ‘normal’ sounding name in the language of the colonizers in Canada rather than my birth name, signifies my position as someone whose body is always recognized as a “foreign” immigrant despite holding a Canadian citizenship. This has been perhaps an underlying thread of the many transformations that my English name has gone through. Morphs that were not of my own choice. In my elementary school classrooms located in the in-between-spaces of Markham-Stouffville, at a time where I was one of the only two non-white students, my classmates arbitrarily added a “J” in the middle of my name to Fi-jona. Perhaps the name “Fiona,” as an ordinary name in Western societies was far too plain for my visibly non-white embodiment amidst a sea of white student and teaching bodies who could trace their genealogical lineages to Europe. Read this way, perhaps the “j” was necessary for a disruption of my embodied identity being too close to North American-Eurocentric norms for comfort in that classroom space.

Two disparate places. Same colonial power that animates the recognition of my names within the White-Settler territories of Canada and the “post”-colonial territories of Hong Kong.

Short Bio: Fiona Cheuk is a PhD student in Social Justice Education at OISE, University of Toronto. She holds an MA in Critical Disability Studies from York University. Her research studies the connections between disability, access, and politics of evidence as contextualized in the settler-colonial structure of Canada. Her current political organizing involves disabled student advocacy and politics of access at UofT with Students for Barrier-Free Access (SBA) where she serves as this year’s co-chair. She also manages the Tumblr for Citation Practices Challenge Project.

Best Intentions (or why do they only hire white ladies to each Indigenous Ed?)

By: Marissa Munoz (University of British Columbia [Theme: Place and Land])

Imagine a class of 34 pre-service school teachers,

undergrads of various stripes, interests, and ages.

you are in the center of the room,

and they are happily "playing along" with a demonstration

of Agosto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed

theatre exercises,

this on is called Flocking

which you have done yourself

more than a few times.  It is all familiar.

You smile along, watching from the center of the room.

This is Indigenous Education, a required course,

one of the last requirements before these eager pre-service teachers

fledge the nest

and find their own classrooms to facilitate. 


You are Indigenous, but an immigrant to this land, to this country far from home.

You came back for the chance to teach

to teach at the big university

to teach a subject close to your heart

because back home, Indigenous Education isn't a thing

they do there.


you created a great syllabus.

Six weeks have flown by and

you have facilitated a lot of learning

called in some favors and personal connections

planned some fieldtrips

invited elders

agonized over hard conversations about racism

led rounds and rounds of check-ins

kept everyone safe.


You've picked just the right articles,

facilitated online discussions,

and given feedback on reflection after reflection after (not so critical) reflection

and patiently explained again to that one student

who tries to convince you every week

Indigenous Knowledge is not real.


This is the second to the last week,

and these are the final projects

and you are almost done, almost done, almost done.


And over to your left, you see it before you hear it

Students are laughing.

One throws an invisible ball to another

then falls on the floor.

And that student does the same movements, only it's not one ball

it's many small balls, like lint

she picks off her clothing and throws them on the next person

before falling to the floor


is she fake dying? 

she's fake dying.


And this is flocking, so others are imitating


And when there are only a few people left

still on their feet

yourself included

You hear it


"Catch! Now you have smallpox"


And it's so funny! What a great activity!


Only it's not.

Genocide is not funny. 





And you can't move

can't talk

can't think

and you are not sure when you stopped breathing.

Stunned, you let the group wrap up their demonstration

Classmates offer appreciations,

just the way you modeled to them.


You stand, and shut it down.


This is how racism happens without any racists in the room.

You ask for a 15 minute break and step out for fresh air


When you come back

They are talking, some are crying

All are shook.

You are wearing your armor

and for the next hour they talk

blaming, pep-talking, working through complicity

you offer care,


and sit with




The course ends. 

You submit your grades

and move home.


The following week you get the call

"Everyone was supposed to have passed."

Even the student who doesn't believe in Indigenous Education?

Even the student who only showed up for 2 of 12 classes?

Even the student who didn't turn in one single assignment?

"What are you going to do to ensure that every student is successful?"

And, like magic, the next week all the grades are pass.


But your teaching evaluations are permanent. Students wrote

"I do not trust her professional judgment."

"Led a dangerous exercise..."

"...Not fit for university teaching"


And, like magic, I've never been invited to teach again.

Because this is how racism happens without any racists in the room.


BIO: Marissa Aki'Nene Muñoz is a Xicana Tejana, tracing her roots to Tlaxcalteca, Coahuilteca, and Wixarika communities of the present-day Texas/Mexico frontera.  Her current research focuses on critical storying, testimonio, and collective memory as the community strategies that have protected rich mesoAmerican intellectual traditions from colonization.  Building upon Indigenous scholarship and frontera-specific methodologies, Marissa’s research moves toward mobilizing Indigenous knowledge of the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo, in response to the ongoing military occupation, environmental racism, and cultural ethnocide that occurs along the U.S.-Mexico border.



Intertwined Futures in the Face of Unnatural Boundaries

By: Alan Santinele Martino, McMaster University (Theme: Place and Land)

Early last year, my father, who lives in Brazil, had a serious stroke and almost passed away. That life event pushed my family to seriously reflect about the future, especially that of my older brother, Bruno, who is disabled. As a family that deeply cares about one another, what would we do if care relations were to suddenly change? My brother and I often talk about our futures together. In our dreams, we live side by side, visiting each other every day. We support each other as we navigate the most challenging as well as the happiest moments of our lives. We see each other grow older and we continue to create new memories together. We simply desire to be together, as siblings and best friends. The Canadian immigration policies, however, are not on our side. Canada has a long history of exclusion of people with disabilities from immigration (for more information, see El-Lahib and Wehbi 2012; Hanes 2009; Wong 2011).

In this short piece, I use an autoethnographic approach to discuss my desire to bring over and be with my brother in Canada in the face of “unnatural boundaries” (Anzaldúa 2007:25) and ableist immigration policies and practices. In essence, autoethnography is an “approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyze (graphy) personal experience (auto) in order to understand cultural experience (ethno)” (Ellis, Adams and Bochner 2010: para. 1).

Among the official guidelines used by immigration officers for determining one’s admissibility to Canada, one criteria states that:

A foreign national is inadmissible on health grounds if their health condition (a) is likely to be a danger to public health; (b) is likely to be a danger to public safety; or (c) might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services (emphasis added, ENF 1 2013:5).

Even though the excessive demands clause does not explicitly state that people with disabilities would not be welcome or be able immigrate to Canada, the common interpretation of this clause makes it almost impossible for disabled people to immigrate (El-Lahib 2015). In such a manner, the only “legitimate” and “admissible” candidates for immigration are the non-disabled. Disabled people are considered to be an “economic burden on the system,” and thus, inadmissible (El-Lahib and Wehbi 2011:96).

Various cases of families with a person with a disability being denied permanent residency in Canada have received public attention lately. For example, Felipe Montoya, a professor at York University and father of a son with Down’s syndrome, and his family were not granted permanent residency on the grounds of excessive financial demands (CBC News 2016). Earlier, in 2012, Jeffrey Niehaus, the father of an autistic son, had also been denied permanent status for having a family member “whose health condition [sic] might reasonably be expected to cause excessive demand on health or social services in Canada” (CTV News 2012).

I still remember the day I had to break down the news to my family and, most importantly, to my brother that the chances of him being able to immigrate to Canada were almost non-existent. Then, a voice in my head[1] reminds me:

I know this memory hurts and haunts you. You wonder, can other people imagine how it feels to tell someone you love and want to share your future with that they simply can’t? You breathe heavily, of both heartache and anger, as the words can’t seem do not want to leave your lips. If only ‘those in power’ understood the pain these policies cause.  

The facial expression on my brother’s face had now changed with the sad news. I did not really know what else to say except an unconvincing, “we’ll figure something out.”  

I have found myself a home in Canada. As I walk to work, I can’t help but imagine my brother walking right alongside me. In this fantasy in my mind, we joke and tease each other, as we always have. With a smirk, he tells me I must be tired of walking as he uses his power chair without transpiring a single drop of sweat. I then quickly note back, “can you remind me again why we need to buy you new shoes anyway as your feet do not even touch the floor?” Our particular relationship of love, trust and loyalty gives one another the permission to use humor that way. Yet, outside of my reveries of the humor between us, most nights I remain awake – my thoughts burdened by the realities of the future. My heart breaks with a feeling of powerlessness. I just wish this country would welcome my brother the same way it has welcomed me.

Perhaps, as Anzaldúa (as cited in Joysmith and Lomas 2005:102) also notes, while “[w]e are all wounded ... we can connect through the wound that’s alienated us from others. When the wound forms a cicatrize, the scar can become a bridge linking people split apart.” The only thing in excess here is my loyalty and love for my brother. Like Anzaldúa, I too hope for a future with more “bridges.” So, as we plan our undoubtedly intertwined futures, these unnatural boundaries and exclusionary policies, attempt to push us towards separate paths, a long-distance relationship, and different networks of people. As someone who deeply loves his brother and desires the best for him, my love and commitment to my brother will never cease or be fractured by unnatural boundaries.


Short Bio: Alan is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at McMaster University. His research interest is in the intersection of disabilities and sexualities. His dissertation looks at the romantic and sexual experiences of people labeled having intellectual disabilities in Ontario, Canada.


Works Cited:

CBC News. 2016. “York University prof denied permanent residency over son's Down syndrome.” Retrieved from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/programs/metromorning/costa-rica-down-syndrome-1.3489120

CTV News. 2012. “Son’s Autism Forces Family to Leave Canada.” Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMyXDSuee6k

Ellis, Carolyn. 2009. Revision: Autoethnographic Reflections on Life and Work. London and New York: Routledge.

Ellis, Carolyn, Tony E. Adams, and Arthur P. Bochner. 2010. “Autoethnography: An Overview.” Forum of Qualitative Social Research 12(1). Retrieved from http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095

El-Lahib, Yahya. 2015. “The Inadmissible “Other”: Discourses of Ableism and Colonialism in Canadian Immigration. Journal of Progressive Human Services 26: 209-228.

El-Lahib, Yahya and Samantha Wehbi. 2012. “Immigration and disability: Ableism in the policies of the Canadian state.” International Social Work 55(1): 95–108.

ENF 1. 2013. Retrieved from: http://www.cic.gc.ca/english/resources/manuals/enf/enf01-eng.pdf

Hanes, Roy. 2009. “None is still too many: An historical exploration of Canadian immigration legislation as it pertains to people with disabilities.” Development Disabilities Bulletin 37(1): 91–126.

Joysmith, Claire, and Clara Lomas. 2005. One wound for another = Una herida por otra: Testimonios de latin@s in the U.S. through cyberspace (11 de septiembre de 2001 - 11 de marzo de 2002). México, D.F: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro de Investigaciones sobre América del Norte.

Wong, Edward Hon-Sing. 2011. “Not welcome: A critical analysis of ableism in Canadian immigration policies from 1869–2011.” Critical Disability Discourses 4:1–27.



[1] Inspired by Ellis’s (2009) work, I too engage with a second, reflexive, voice as a part of my autoethnographic writing.