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Do You Have an English Name?

Popularity 12Viewed 25370 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 teamkrejados 2016-10-4 20:08
Dracarys: Please ..
Well, dear... you have to tell me what your name is!
Reply Report Riz 2016-10-5 00:59
I like your writing style, the choice of words, and the expression so much! And of course your choice of Subject is always unique. I learn from you. Thanks my friend, and keep writing. I have read this blog many times. Reading enhances writing skill, right?
Reply Report Dracarys 2016-10-5 11:27
teamkrejados: Well, dear... you have to tell me what your name is!
oh - first name is Daniel and last name is Hu ..
My oral teacher just give our first name in English and last name is just our last name ..
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-5 13:58
Dracarys: oh - first name is Daniel and last name is Hu ..
My oral teacher just give our first name in English and last name is just our last name ..
Daniel is a Hebrew name meaning 'God is my judge'. I suppose you already know what your last name means, right?   
What do you think about the meaning of your name?
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-10-5 15:32
Dracarys: oh - first name is Daniel and last name is Hu ..
My oral teacher just give our first name in English and last name is just our last name ..
what I don't understand is why you didn't look for the meaning of the name 'daniel' yourself.

Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-10-5 15:34
teamkrejados: Daniel is a Hebrew name meaning 'God is my judge'. I suppose you already know what your last name means, right?   
What do you think about the  ...
I am continually puzzled by the inability for Chinese people to do this for themselves.

They demand 'English' names and then claim they have no meaning.
Do they only use the internet for gaming, shopping, posting selfies and copying?
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-6 08:15
seanboyce88: 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  ...
You are the only person I know who is named Killer Smile, Sean-the-not-sheep!
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-6 08:16
BlondeAmber: for a country that supposedly values the meaning behind the name, many Chinese people show very poor judgement when choosing an 'English' name.
I think that is because, to them, western names do not matter.
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-6 08:18
ysyaileen:      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,
...
Aileen, that is a great explanation! Thank you so much. And now I confess to jealousy: it sounds like the English corner your experienced is much more developed than the one at my school. Here, everyone speaks Chinese until it is time to speak English, and I usually end up standing around, wondering what is going on.
Thank you for accepting this thesis, and please: spread the word!
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-6 08:22
Riz: I like your writing style, the choice of words, and the expression so much! And of course your choice of Subject is always unique. I learn from you. T ...
Indeed it does, Riz!
Here is a fun tool to gauge your writing skills: https://iwl.me
It analyzes your writing to compare which famous author you write like. You should try it!
I am honored at your opinion of this blog, Riz, and thankful for your constant readership.
Wish you a great day!
Reply Report teamkrejados 2016-10-6 08:28
BlondeAmber: I am continually puzzled by the inability for Chinese people to do this for themselves.

They demand 'English' names and then claim they have no meani ...
Innovation and critical thought processes seem woefully lacking in my students. Yours, too?
Even after introducing my groups to research sites in English, many of them still prefer the limited offerings of Baidu. I postulate that that plays into the 'never did it that way before; why change now' mentality so prevalent in this society.
My students have trouble going outside of the boundaries so firmly set for them. That is a shame, because uni is the time for them to open their minds to new ideas - about the world and about themselves.
But, you're right: everyone seems content to compete on the same platform.  Such a pity!
Reply Report Riz 2016-10-6 11:25
Hugs to you.
Reply Report Riz 2016-10-6 11:29
I tried the tool and it says Agatha Christie. Wow! I feel elevated now.  
Reply Report BlondeAmber 2016-10-6 15:22
teamkrejados: Innovation and critical thought processes seem woefully lacking in my students. Yours, too?
Even after introducing my groups to research sites in Eng ...
When combined with the belief that what is on the internet or tv constitutes indisputable 'facts', it produces a very closed and restricted view of life.

Very often when I ask the question 'why don't you.......?' I commonly get the response 'no why'
the desire to question or challenge ideas has been sucked out of 99% of students I meet.

I have seen students get upset when I prove something to the contrary of what they have been told for years. there is a general apathy about exploring life and knowledge beyond their very limited comfort zone.
Reply Report AndrewHLi 2016-10-7 07:31
My western name is also my English name which is Andrew Li. I gave that name to myself.    Thanks a lot for mentioning the difference between them.
Reply Report GhostBuster 2017-3-3 15:28
A rose is a rose by any name!

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