Several years ago, I visited a Chinese friend, Wu, who was completing a business degree in Virginia. We had originally met almost ten years prior in China, when we studied together during my college semester abroad in a city near Shanghai. Even as a college student in China, Wu had been something of an addict when it came to American popular culture, casually sprinkling his English conversation with slang expressions picked up from counterfeit DVDs of Friends. But I was still shocked when, visiting Wu in his Virginia dorm room, he proudly showed me a picture of his newborn son back in Shanghai.
“He’s so cute!”, I gushed. “What’s his name?”
Whatever your particular feelings about the merits of the name Larry for a Chinese infant, Wu’s story captures something of the capricious way that people in mainland China often choose their English names, should they decide they need one. And these days, many Chinese in large cities — even if they don’t ever plan to leave China — decide to pick a Western “nickname” for ease of doing business with foreigners, for fun, or to be fashionable.
A Chinese student in Beijing or Shanghai might choose his or her English name in high school or college (and presumably, Larry will have the freedom someday to change to a new English name if he so chooses). When I spent a summer working at a financial firm in Shanghai, it was mandatory for all Chinese employees to use their English names — even in conversation with their Chinese coworkers. The only “Claude” I’ve ever known was a 22 year-old Shanghai native in the cubicle next door.
The process by which Chinese parents name their children is anything but simple. Chinese given names are generally chosen for meaning, sometimes with the consultation of a naming expert who ensures the name is auspicious according to Chinese astrology.
By contrast, the process of a young Chinese student choosing his or her own English name is an exercise in fun and cultural freedom. Chinese shares few linguistic similarities with English, so the typical Chinese name has few built-in clues to suggest its English equivalent. Unlike an “Alexandrei” from Moscow who might use the English name “Alex,” Zhang from Beijing is under no obligation to chose “Johnny” as the closest approximation.As a result, many Chinese choose Western names that sound “cool” to them, or have interesting meanings. I have met two Chinese women with the English name “Echo,” and more than two named “Rain.” A friend who taught English at a college in China told me about her difficulty stifling a giggle — and determining whether to overrule her students’ right to choose — when on her first day of class, one of her male pupils chose the English name “Fancy.”
Other Chinese might borrow names from international celebrities, without realizing that they are unusual or carry specific cultural associations. A friend from Shanghai chose the name “Rooney” — an Irish name that Nameberry tells me means, improbably, “red haired” — after his favorite English soccer player. I’m waiting with bated breath to meet a Chinese woman named “Beyonce” or “Brangelina”.
Humor value aside, the Western names that mainland Chinese people choose tells us a few things about our increasingly global culture. Western names no longer belong solely to the “West,” just as it’s fashionable now for Americans to choose names from just about any continent. And of course, it works in reverse. With the growing importance of China in the world, more and more of our children will travel, study or work in China, where they will be expected to choose Chinese names if they plan to spend any length of time there.
Speaking from personal experience, I can say that they will enjoy trying out their new Chinese names, even when those elicit laughter from their Chinese friends. My own Chinese name, Mai-kuh, given to me by my first Chinese language professor, immediately identifies me as a foreigner because it is an obvious approximation of “Michael.” Chinese are frequently mystified by the tattooed Chinese characters that increasingly grace the biceps of American pro athletes, most of which make little sense to native eyes (“dragon man fight sword”?).
In short, welcome to the wacky world of names in the 21st century, where creative license and cultural miscues abound.