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.