What’s in a name

A lot of people will have met international students from China during their time at university and had a giggle at their name. Maybe because it was out of fashion (Norman) or a bit abstract (Sunshine). Some people might genuinely think this is their name, but in fact it’s because a lot of Chinese names are not easy to pronounce for the average Westerner. So most Chinese children and students choose an ‘English name’*.

Coming to China to teach English, you will find a whole other dimension of random ‘English names’, be it overly literary/historical (Benjamin Franklin, Harry Potter) or just not a name (Yo-yo, Why). As a teacher of Junior 1 students, the first year of Chinese middle school, I had the responsibility of giving students ‘English names’ and I didn’t take it lightly. I wrote a list of appropriate names and allocated them randomly, swapping if they didn’t like it. Unfortunately I heard that some foreign teachers in China aren’t so responsible, and some end up with some crazy names. And of course there are some students who like the name they came up with themselves, and no amount of persuasion will get them to change it. Fair enough. A lot of them won’t leave China anyway.

But it also works the other way. Most Chinese people cannot pronounce our Western names either and in China I am now known by a completely other name. It occurred to me today when I was on the phone with a travel agent and she asked my name. I went to say 乐霞, before remembering that my flight was of course booked in my ‘real’ name/English name. There are many people here in China who don’t know my real name, my in-laws, R’s family, my Chinese friends. We were recently staying at a hotel and my MiL forgot our room number. She went to reception and asked which room 乐霞 is staying in, but of course the room was booked using my passport, so the hotel had no record of a 乐霞 and she couldn’t find it.

So it’s a good job I like my Chinese name. I chose it myself when my Chinese was pretty limited, and although the 乐 is a bit ambiguous as a 姓 surname, the 霞 is particularly good and I am happy when I find someone else with that same character. The reason I chose it myself was because I was not satisfied with the name that my Chinese teacher at that time chose for me. It was a transliteration of my English name, and just ridiculous. Many of the transliterated names don’t even sound like the ‘English name’, like 保罗 baoluo for Paul or 莎拉 shala for Sarah. I personally feel it doesn’t really work well to try to transliterate names, especially when it’s more than two syllables (although for important world figures it’s useful, like 奥巴马 aobama for Obama and 哈利波特 halibote for Harry Potter).

I’ve heard some really lovely Chinese names adopted by foreigners, some which cleverly relate to the ‘real’ name. But I think Chinese teachers should also try to be responsible when helping foreigners with Chinese names. Who wants a name that singles them out as an outsider? And once chosen names, do tend to stick, so better choose a nice sounding one.

I never could have imagined I’d be known by a completely other name by a whole group of people, especially one my mum can’t even say. But I like it 🙂

* This could also be a German name, Hebrew name, etc. but I use English name to mean a Western-sounding name written with letters. Students who study other languages often have another name for that class, for example my friend Mandy/Aurelie.

11 thoughts on “What’s in a name

  1. My first Mandarin teacher was from Taiwan and gave me the name 白素珊。But when I went to China, people there laughed and in Hong Kong they said that was the name of a famous opera singer. Now that I’m working with Mandarin and Cantonese senior citizens, they all have ideas of how my name should be written. 蘇珊 instead of 素珊。 But I’m having a hard time letting go of that original Chinese name. I used to have a name chop with it and countless teachers wrote it that way. So for now, I’ll keep it!


  2. Hello, I love your article so much!
    Names always make Chinese students worried. As one of them I need to say that Chinese always give themselves English names coz Chinese names are longer and more difficult to pronounce. We have retroflex while most of others trill “r” sound. Also, having own English name makes one popular among students.
    It’s interesting to name in English. Like the “X” sound in my name, my foreign friends from west Europe pronounce in “K” so my name is also called Kinchen. I didn’t name myself but it’s just an appellation.


  3. I always wondered if my Chinese friends had English names because their parents gave it to them at birth, until I met one girl who had just arrived in the US and was in the middle of choosing her English name. I didn’t know that they were often assigned at school! I imagine that if teachers in the US who didn’t speak the language natively assigned foreign names to students it would end up being like “Sunshine” or “Bruce Lee” or something like that.

    In Japanese language courses assigning Japanese names is not very common – instead, Western names are transliterated (using katakana). This can lead to some unwieldy names. So, sometimes nicknames are more common than using full western names. I wonder why the tradition of adopting a Japanese name never became standard…


  4. What’s the pinyin for your Chinese name? I had a Chinese roommate in college who told me her English name was Vanilla…… I was very weirded out haha. Most of the Japanese and Korean students I met didn’t have English names, but when they did, they were biblical names, and my students I work with now (Korean kindergarteners) all have English names except for a few, but they are all normal (David, Joseph, Amy, etc.) I have been told to take up a Korean name, and my friend made one for my that my fiance said was pretty, but I never use it because my name is pretty easy to pronounce in Korean.


  5. A Taiwanese friend gave me a Chinese name but I don’t use it as mine is pretty easy to pronounce even for Chinese.
    I think the western name system in China is so strange, and I prefer to use the Chinese ones. Unfortunately many only use their English names with me, so I never get the chance to learn their real one. Mr.Panda’s family for example. We never know which person I am talking about with his mom because she doesn’t know the English name.
    By the way: Mr. Panda uses his Chinese name because it is easy to pronounce it almost correctly as a native German speaker.


  6. I have also met some Chinese people with strange English names, but I am guilty myself of having a “bad” Chinese name. It was given to me by a friend’s friend, the first time I went to Beijing. It sounds very similar to a popular snack and Chinese people laugh at me… but when I tried to find a new name a few years ago and asked for people’s suggestions, they wouldn’t agree. What sounded nice for one person, another would say it was too vulgar. So I stuck with my old, bad Chinese name and now it is printed on my driving’s license… so too late to change it, haha.


  7. I am very old fashioned when it comes to names to the point of eccentricity. Most Chinese wouldn’t be cognizant of the relevance (nor would I suspect a good number of British) but I think Aethelwulf or better yet Vortigern would make mighty fine English names. Basically anything post 15th century is too newfangled for me. I think I may have more leway with male names, it may take more sweet talking than I am capable of to get away with Kunigunde for a girl.

    In any case, I am a despiser of the modern Chinese habit of monosyllabic names coupled with a single character surname. It is just lazy and you will have tens of thousands sharing it with. The old ways are best. 西門, 公孫, 上官 all make fine surnames to adopt and can be paired with a single character given name and not be too base.


  8. Interesting post – my name Chi (pronounced like the tea Chai) causes endless confusion in both Chinese and English. My Chinese inlaws call me Che (it has been years now so I feel it’s too late to try and correct them) and other white people usually pronounce my name like the chi in tai chi. People often assume I am Asian (based on my name) before they meet me and then the fact that I am married to a Chinese person (but have kept my very English last name) only seems to add to the confusion. On the plus side no one seems to forget me once they have finally mastered my name!


  9. Lovely article! One of my Chinese friends uses an English name (in school) that is pretty close to her real name, and I, since she kept forgetting my real name (and well, the pronunciation is different in Chinese too), am using Mei, which is funny, because some call me 妹 from 妹妹 (which I kinda chose myself), others call me 美 .


  10. Names can be quite amusing! I sometimes lugh a little (secretly, of course) at the names of my coordinators at work – Cherry and Rainbow. Then the (female) friend who thought her Chinese name was so feminine and decided to balance it out with choosing the English name Stephen.

    In turn, my Chinese friends all laugh at my Chinese name 米粒 (rice corn). Some Chinese friends gave it to me before I learnt Chinese, and then it stuck. But it does work as an ice breaker, and now I just don’t wanna change haha.


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