Someone in a bar last week asked me my name and I didn’t know what to say. I’d just spent nine hours at work using my Chinese name all day and so when this cheerful Ningbonese woman asked me for my name in English, I wasn’t sure which one to give her.
A name is a meaningless word assigned to you that allows people to judge you before they know you. They are given not chosen, except perhaps in the domain of pseudonyms coined by the marketing teams of prepubescent pop stars. But hidden in plain site lies the People’s Republic of China, where people are naming themselves every single day. Here, if you decide to learn English it’s customary to take on an English name because apparently foreigners can’t pronounce Chinese names. Who am I kidding, we absolutely can’t. And although not quite as ubiquitous as its cultural counterpart is a trend where foreigners in China are adopting Chinese names too. The reasons vary but it’s less about ease of communication than it is a kind of rite of passage. The residential equivalent of buying a BJ t-shirt in Beijing, if you will. Besides, it’s fun. We’ve all fantasized about having a sexier, slinkier name at some point.
The Chinese will often be given their name by their first English teacher at school or university and this person may or may not care whether you like your name or whether you ‘feel’ like a ‘Susie’ because they have a hundred people to name before three o’clock and the novelty has long since worn off. As an adult it might be when you start formally learning English at a language center like Wall Street English, EF or Talking Street where a teacher or other English-speaking employee will give you a short list to choose from.
The process is usually much simpler for foreigners because most common English names already have predetermined Chinese ‘translations’ that sound as close phonetically as it is possible to get to the English name using Chinese characters.
If you don’t have a nice cookie-cutter English name, a Chinese friend/teacher/colleague will choose one for you if you ask nicely. ‘Can I choose my own?’ you ask. Please. What does this look like to you, World of Warcraft? If it’s left to you, you might call yourself 帅龙 (Handsome Dragon), 红狐 (Red Fox) or 龙泡泡 (Dragon Bubble Bubble).
If you’re creating a Chinese name, the characters need to mean something fairly positive so you may sacrifice some phonetic similarity so that if your name is Dan for example, your Chinese name doesn’t mean ‘egg’. Can I name myself Crouching Lover Hidden Genius? Sure, but you might go over the character limit. Think subtle. Connotations hold more weight than flamboyant adjectives. Take the name 尹泽 (YinZe) for example, where 泽 means silver or shiny in the way you would describe a medal or the name 胡文假 (HuWenJia) where 文 means formal writing or language usually reserved for the written word, chosen in the hopes that their son would be a great writer.
Another important consideration is the structure of the name. Chinese names feature your surname first which is usually one character long, followed by your given name which can be one or two characters long. So an appropriate first character for your new Chinese name would be one that makes a good Chinese surname, not first name.
On the other side of the fence, the lack of priority given to meaning can be confusing and frustrating to Chinese people choosing English names. “But what does Tom mean?” Jesus. Nothing. A male cat. All English names mean something but our attitude towards it can be summed up as: we don’t know or care so neither should you. Unless you’re genuinely interested, in which case by all means scour the internet for what Gary means.
If you’re more in the market for meaning than similarity to your given name, the world and seemingly the dictionary, is your oyster.
There are so many areas of language to take inspiration from but here are a few that seem particularly popular, with real-life examples:
Personal attributes and aspirations: Challenge, Younger, Thinner, Better, Lazy, Seedy, PhD, Punk Rocker, Luck
Places: Pudong International Airport, Metro Line 7, Ocean
The alphabet: W, Q
Pop culture: Optimus Prime, Arwen, Linkin Park, Tweety, Mermaid, Pikachu, Ultraman
Food: Lollipop, Passionfruit, Chocolate, Sandwich, Salmon
Shapes: Circle, Square
Colours: Greeny, Red, Purple
Animals: Hippo, Elephant, Froggie
Random inanimate objects/concepts: Wind, Testicle, Brick, Literature, Alien
Names that almost sound like names: Hanklier, Showing, Sumner
Some of these admittedly have been chosen by parents for children studying English in their spare time. Still, you’d be forgiven for questioning the love of a parent that names their kid Testicle.
After all of this, you may end up with a name you don’t even like. Especially if your parents picked it out for you. Don’t worry. This isn’t like an ugly signature you chose when you were twelve and is now on every document and certificate pertaining to your existence. I’ve seen people discard names from a week ago and names from ten years ago. They change names like they’re colored contacts and for a multitude of reasons. “Lily is silly.” “There were too many Candys in my class.” I know someone who has two names, one male and one female depending on the day and her mood. She’s not even a little bit androgynous. She’s a sharp, sexy businesswoman who speaks fantastic English and is called Allen fifty percent of the time. Name changes don’t tend to be small tweaks either. Like a kid with a crazy vegan upbringing, they’re going straight to the Angus steak; Prudence to Challenge, April to Oli, Alex to Lewis. Given that the primary incentive to start using an English name is so that people have an easier time remembering and pronouncing your name, it’s always baffling when people choose names that are either complete gibberish or are from countries just as foreign to English-speakers as China. I had this conversation the other week:
“Call me Sakura.”
“Is that your…?”
“Right. Are you learning Japanese or…?”
Younger may want to be younger and Challenge may want to challenge herself but there are still a few mines you might accidentally hit on the road to a cohesive dual-identity. There are phonetic sounds in English that don’t exist in Chinese so you might inadvertently end up with a perfectly normal English name that everyone can pronounce but you. The /θ/ sound in Catherine, Matthew and Theo is a classic example as is the /l/ in Bill and Will. Several people have had to sit down with Kent and talk to him about the importance of vowel sounds. The irony is not lost on us and even though we are the visitors piecing together broken Mandarin to buy a loaf of red bean bread, it is funny.
So you have yourself a nice new name that everyone can pronounce. Congratulations. You’ve wedged it in beside your real name on your WeChat profile. It’s only a matter of time before everyone on the other side of the language barrier is yelling it around Laowaitan. But who exactly is that? Wearing your new name often begins in the classroom. Students will share their new name with their foreign teacher and the teacher will usually divulge theirs for ease of communication. That was certainly when my Chinese name escaped the shackles of social media because students found it a lot easier to remember my name if I gave them my Chinese name, even if it sounds almost identical to my English name. You start responding to it and over time it evolves a nickname of its own which you start responding to too. You write it with the same confidence and speed as the name you’ve had your whole life and every once in a while, you hesitate when someone new asks for your name.
It can take weeks or months to get used to but in the end, it’s completely up to you how many people use it and how much you think it will help you and those communicating with you. And just like that college drop-out you dated with the guyliner and dreamcatcher tattoo, if you like it, that’s all that matters. It’s your name now. Own it, stand by it and use it often. We’ll never admit it but it’s the ones with the weird names that we remember.
Note: The author Diosa Taylor maintains a funny and informative blog that details her time and experiences traveling China and the world. It can be found at http://from50mmaway.blogspot.hk.