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Do You Have an English Name?

Popularity 12Viewed 9896 times 2016-10-1 08:56 |System category:Life| English

T'is the season, again, for freshmen to hit the classrooms. Tanned from their 2-week military stint, they eagerly await their foreign teacher's dispensations: of tales from the west, of ways to learn English better, of a name they can proudly boast. One of the most common questions my freshly minted students ask: “Can you give me an English name?”


I most certainly can, but the range of names that originate in England or other English speaking nations is pretty small. Considering I have upwards of seventy students in each of my freshman classes, I would have several 'Cate's, 'Bartholomew's, and 'Winston's per group. That might get confusing.


Names in China are endowed with special power and meaning. Naming a child is a significant responsibility (and honor). Traditionally, the most venerated family member is tasked with naming the newcomer, and coming up with just the right name can take several weeks. Some families would even consult monks and fortune tellers, paying heftily for a most auspicious name because of the belief that one's name forecasts one's fortune.


Here, the story of one girl who was particularly unruly in her youth. Her behavior was puzzling because her parents had consulted a fortune teller shortly after her birth, and named her according to that mystic's suggestion. By 5 years old, she clearly wasn't living up to that name – she was so naughty! Again, they went to the temple. Another soothsayer exclaimed that she had been given the wrong name at birth and suggested another name. The girl, now 9 years old and constantly in trouble, was again dragged to the temple. Another horrified exclamation over her misnaming, and another name given.


In all, that poor child was renamed 4 times. She finally chose her own name (and her own fortune) after graduating college.


These days, with Chinese tradition melting faster than polar ice caps, parents, uncles and even family friends can author names. When I first came to China, my students revealed that their grandparents (or a monk) gave them their names; these days it is parents or uncles/aunts, and nobody claims any monk named them. Still, everyone maintains that Chinese names have special significance.


If names are indeed that important in China, why would the Chinese think names are any less important in the west?


They are. I am sure you have heard people correcting a speaker on how their name is said. Maybe you have done it yourself. Surely you have asked a person to spell their name, or have been asked to spell yours. It is a measure of respect to say and write someone's name correctly. Should that respect extend to that name's origin, as well?


“Do you have an English name?”


No, I don't. My name originates from Greece. In fact, most names commonly used in the west, that are called 'English names' in China, stem from Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Greek, Spanish and various countries in Africa. So, the blanket phrase 'English name' – 英文名字 (ying wen ming zi), so commonly used in China, is inaccurate.


And here is where I run into trouble.


When I point out and try to correct that inaccuracy, I am told: “'English name' is just the way we refer to all names in the west. There is nothing wrong with that.” In other words, just accept the error and move on. It is unimportant.


I beg to differ.


Not only because names are as important in the west as they are in China, but because of pride of heritage. Just like the Chinese, westerners are proud of their origins. And 'English name' is incorrect because it suggests that such a name is just a name, with no tradition or meaning attached. And because implying that all western names are English names extends the misbegotten idea that 'the west' is synonymous with America – an idea that plagues most Chinese.


I can understand why foreign names are all considered English, thinking about the historic impact that English-speaking 'invaders' have had on the country: Americans settled Shanghai; British took over Hong Kong; and that today, English speaking nations are the most politically impactful.


Still, other countries have had influence on China: cars from Germany and France, a flood of students from various African countries, trade partnerships with South America.


So, why is it that China insists western names are English names? Wouldn't it be equally easy – and more correct to say: “你的西方名字叫什么?” (ni de xi fang ming zi jiao shen me?) - “what is your western name?”


If supermarkets are filled with sales people urging you to buy Spanish olive oil, Danish cookies and German chocolate; if car lots are filled with Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens (and VWs, BMWs and Audis); if entire college dormitories are filled with students from all over the world - and there is a certain prestige in all of that foreign-ness, why stick with 'English names'? Names, too, come from all over!


C'mon, China! Let this foreign teacher do the job you hired her to do: correct misconceptions and broaden perspectives. Please don't limit yourself only to 'English names'; that denies the rest of the world and its many wonders, including meanings of exotic names like: Jasmine ('flower of the olive family', from Africa), Erica ('Honorable Ruler' in Danish) and Linda ('beautiful' in Spanish).

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)

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Comment Comment (36 comments)

Reply Report voice_cd 2016-10-1 16:04
thanks for sharing here, we have highlighted your blog.
Reply Report seanboyce88 2016-10-1 16:29
In all honesty, I don't just see why they don't just use their own names anyway. In every other country you are not asked to change your name, so why is china so different?

I had to choose a Chinese name (being a student here) and it still annoys me that people here cannot pronounce my name properly and have to resort to xiaoen  (see-aow-en...a rough phonetic guide to non chinese speakers). Is it really so difficult to remember a name? In all my life with all the foreign names I have ever met, I have never once found it difficult to remember a name be it arabic, hindi, russian or chinese...
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-10-1 17:35
seanboyce88: In all honesty, I don't just see why they don't just use their own names anyway. In every other country you are not asked to change your name, so why  ...
I agree.
I have met students who have been given incredibly inappropriate 'english' names either by themselves or former teachers (both Chinese and non-Chinese teachers).

And I am constantly told (by Chinese people) that my name is 'meaningless' because it is not Chinese - whereas the origin of my name is 'brave song of happiness'.
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-10-1 17:37
to answer the OP's question.
no, I don't have an English name, I am not English.
Reply Report Riz 2016-10-1 23:02
Brilliant! My name's my name. Why change it?
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-2 10:32
voice_cd: thanks for sharing here, we have highlighted your blog.
Thank you! Wish you a happy holiday week!
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-3 08:36
BlondeAmber: I agree.
I have met students who have been given incredibly inappropriate 'english' names either by themselves or former teachers (both Chinese and no ...
Apropos wildly inappropriate names... oh, yeah! I've heard my share of them, too. Echo, Oven, Open, Jeans (like the pants)... just to name a few.

Strangely enough, I have a very nice Chinese name: 高乐思 - tall, happy thoughts but the Chinese insist on calling me 索菲娅, the phonetic 'translation' of my western name which has no meaning at all. Go figure!
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-3 08:44
seanboyce88: In all honesty, I don't just see why they don't just use their own names anyway. In every other country you are not asked to change your name, so why  ...
I think the need for a western name comes from perceived bias against the Chinese in other countries, and a need to fit in. The movie Dark Matter highlights that very well. It could also be that the Chinese believe that no foreigner could pronounce their name correctly. Another reason could simply be the prestige of having something western that is all one's own.

It really isn't so hard to remember (or pronounce) names. And, if my students are any indication, remembering a name is a vital social skill in China - they are forever asking me: "Do you remember my name?". And they get hurt/offended if I don't.

Would 山 be closer to a phonetic 'translation' of your name?
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-3 08:45
Riz: Brilliant! My name's my name. Why change it?
Rizwan! Long time, no see!

And I still remember your name!  
Reply Report seanboyce88 2016-10-3 09:35
BlondeAmber: to answer the OP's question.
no, I don't have an English name, I am not English.
Yeah that too haha....

Being called Sean in China means I of course get called "seen" an awful lot haha. good old Gaelic just confusing everyone. Even Europeans have fallen for that
Reply Report Riz 2016-10-3 12:50
Hahaha....I am back  my friend.  
Reply Report seanboyce88 2016-10-3 12:54
teamkrejados: I think the need for a western name comes from perceived bias against the Chinese in other countries, and a need to fit in. The movie Dark Matter high ...
possibly, the actual translation for sean is 肖恩  but that name is famous in China due to a certain sheep sharing his name with me. I do not wish to be known as shawn the sheep so I roped in a Chinese friend to help create my own. So my Chinese name 柏笑恩 is actually derived from a poem and means  the smile that can defeat all enemies.   

If you are going to do cheesy, you have got to do it properly cheesy hahaha
Reply Report seneca 2016-10-3 13:58
teamkrejados: Rizwan! Long time, no see!

And I still remember your name!   
Your blog is informative and interesting, but I think you err in your belief that Chinese are forced by the rest of the world into adopting an international or English name.

The reason is both simple and complex. Simple because if the Chinese could understand how first names and surnames work in the world they could adapt to it. Unfortunately, they don't learn much about other cultures and only learn that "foreigners put the names in the wrong order"

English first names have been adopted to make it easier for both sides; the foreign interlocutor will not have to guess which is the Chinese person's first name and which his or her surname, and the Chinese does not have to adapt to Western norms either.

I am sure your employer does not treat you the same way he or she treats Chinese teachers: you are no doubt known to him only by your first name. Such is the depth of cultural awareness and sensitivity here...
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-3 19:08
seneca: Your blog is informative and interesting, but I think you err in your belief that Chinese are forced by the rest of the world into adopting an interna ...
I am glad you expounded on the topic, and you are quite right: I've achieved super-stardom equal to Cher, Madonna and Angelina. Around here, I am known only by my first name!  
My supposition of possible prejudice is just that: supposition. Of course, the issue is far more complex than indicated. Besides, how could we know all of the reasons Chinese choose a western name?
Reply Report Dracarys 2016-10-3 19:17
my oral teacher give us a list of English names and ask us to pick one for our own .. So it's easier than think one yourself ..
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-3 19:22
Dracarys: my oral teacher give us a list of English names and ask us to pick one for our own .. So it's easier than think one yourself ..
How sad! Do you know what your name means? Would you like to?
Reply Report Dracarys 2016-10-3 21:47
teamkrejados: How sad! Do you know what your name means? Would you like to?
Please ..
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-10-4 16:00
Dracarys: Please ..
was the English teacher who gave you name suggestions Chinese or not?
The teacher in question seems to be a fan of 'Game of Thrones because the alias you use is not a normal 'English' name and does not come up in any online search expect in the context of this fictional story.

Even more reason that a Chinese person who insists on an 'English' name take the time to do some research themselves before choosing to be known by this name.
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-10-4 16:02
teamkrejados: I am glad you expounded on the topic, and you are quite right: I've achieved super-stardom equal to Cher, Madonna and Angelina. Around here, I am know ...
for a country that supposedly values the meaning behind the name, many Chinese people show very poor judgement when choosing an 'English' name.
Reply Report ysyaileen 2016-10-4 16:06
    i used to tell others i had an english name" Aileen"  
maybe i have to tell other that i do have a foreign name Aileen" now,
well, i got this name in a quite simple way, it was when i was in my senior high school.
once we were speaking in  an english corner, and it would be much easier for us to greet one another if we all had an western name, besides it might seemed to be more original while you were speaking english.
so i chose one and i was told that my name means hope sunshine in Greece. and i love it.
i know that every name has meanings in its own cultrue the chinese want to have an western name
maybe because they want to merge into the culture , when we are speaking the language we hope that we can be more original
so we start from a name

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  • 2014-04-01 2017-9-24 17:21

    wonderful depiction

  • The 'Face' Effect 2017-8-17 16:51

    In the USA blacks demand all people of other races to call them "African American" Yet they call each other the"N" word everyday.Maybe they should folllow the law. Respect is earned and can not be foreced on you by any law.

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