Picking an English Name in China

Picking an English Name in China

By Li Xueqing, China Daily

Mosquito, Circle, Tomato – Chinese people come up with strange English names at times, names that can baffle foreign employers and even cost them their chance of scoring a high-profile job.

An American expatriate in Shanghai saw an opportunity here and decided to launch a consulting business on the best choice of English names.

Lindsay Jernigan from Memphis, Tennessee, asks her clients to answer 10 questions on her website (BestEnglishName.com) to help them nail down a suitable name with minimum fuss.

After paying 15 yuan ($2.5) by Alipay, China‘s version of PayPal, they get a choice of five recommended names.

Since September, her website has been visited 20,000 times. About 1,800 people have paid to see what answers the quiz yields.

Questions include their favorite color, flower and preferences for a name – for example, short or long, feminine or masculine. Western and Chinese zodiac signs are also taken into account, as are future career plans.

The questions are designed to find a name that matches the client’s personality and aspirations, Jernigan said.

About 200 people have forked out more money – 120 to 200 yuan ($19 to 32) each – to consult with Jernigan in person or through QQ, a popular online chatting tool in China. Most plan to study or live abroad.

Jernigan started her business one year ago when she realized how an inappropriate name could create an awkward first impression and even cost people a shot at a job.

She told the story of one young man who was not even granted a job interview by one of Jernigan’s friends because he put the name Kaka on his resume in homage to the Brazilian football player.

The friend found the name strange and inappropriate. It conveyed the impression that he would not be able to handle himself well with foreigners in a social setting or mixed working environment, Jernigan said.

Yet Kaka seems tame compared to some of the other names she has come across. These range from fairy tale princesses (Cinderella) to random numbers (Seven, Eleven), physical phenomena (Echo), animals and insects (Dragon, Tiger, Fly).

Food is another popular choice in China, with many women wanting to be called Apple or Cherry, she said.

Suhail Nasir, who hails from Pakistan but has lived in Shanghai for 10 years, said he and his friends in Shanghai find some local people’s English names “hilarious”.

He said he once had to persuade a colleague at Alcatel Lucent to change his name from Coke to Robert.

“This is an idea that many people had before, but no one thought it could be a profitable business,” he said. “I’m just surprised that (Jernigan) actually managed to make a business out of it.”

English names are common in big international cities like Shanghai because many non-Chinese find it hard to read or pronounce Chinese names, said Zhao Ronghui, a director of the Institute of Linguistics at Shanghai International Studies University.

“According to Chinese culture, we also tend to try and make things easier for others at our own expense,” she said.

English-speaking people usually adhere to a pool of names that may have their origins in the Christian Bible or popular Western mythology, whereas, technically speaking, any Chinese character can be used in a Chinese name.

There are over 80,000 Chinese characters, some 6,500 of which are commonly used in daily speech.

Chinese parents often embed their own tastes and expectations in their children’s names through a careful selection and configuration of the characters.

Such rules do not apply when choosing an English name, however. Rather than choosing something humdrum, Chinese are just as likely to pick something that has a specific meaning for them – such as their favorite foreign sports star or fruit.

Jernigan said most of her clients want a name that is unique and easy to pronounce. They pay far more attention to the meaning than their Western counterparts, who may not even be aware their own name has a Bible-derived or other meaning.

Some of her clients ask for an English name that is similar in meaning or sound to their Chinese name. Others insist on incorporating one or more of the five elements of wood, fire, water, metal and earth – called wuxing in Chinese – to bring good luck.

People also pick up words from pop culture without realizing that Tiger (Woods), Madonna and Cinderella are not considered normal or common in the West.

Some of her clients reject names for the opposite reason.

“There’s a Serena in the TV show ‘Gossip Girl’, so many girls think the name is too commonly used, but actually it’s not,” said Jernigan.

The desire to stand out from the crowd makes some opt for French, Arabic or even Japanese names.

“You can easily bump into a Chinese person called Eva or Michelle in Shanghai,” said Lu Hong, who works for a fashion buyer. She said she chose the Japanese name Yui because it is simple, feminine and easy to pronounce.

“Young Chinese have a strong sense of self-awareness. They also hope their English names will be cool, like their names online,” said Fang Yongde, an associate professor of intercultural communication at Shanghai International Studies University.

“Choosing an English name is a language game for some,” Zhao said.

She found that Chinese under 30 are fond of Internet slang and are more likely to integrate English words into daily dialogue with their compatriots.

But once they start to interact with foreigners, they are more likely to start thinking about the connotation of their English name, she said.

English names have also become facilitators in the way modern Chinese communicate as they provide an easy way out when people do not know how to address each other.

This was easier back in the day when people would routinely refer to one another as “comrade”, but this practice is rarely seen outside of political circles these days.

“Calling a colleague ‘Mr’ or ‘Miss’, or using their full name, feels too formal and distant, whereas using their given Chinese name can come across as a bit too intimate,” said Ying Yujie, who works for a private equity firm in the city.

“Somehow, I feel that my English name is one step removed from the real me,” said Jia Haihong, who works for an American institution in Shanghai.

“Different forms of address represent different psychological distances between the addresser and the addressee, and they apply to different social situations and needs,” said Qian Xiaofei, a lecturer of linguistics at Shanghai University.

English names can fill this psychological gap because they are foreign and bear no Chinese cultural connotation, he said.

Zhao noted that Chinese people have to learn how to juggle their English and Chinese names.

“Take me, for example. If I were to give foreign scholars my English name, even though it would facilitate our oral conversation, it would not help them to find my academic work, as I use my Chinese name to publish papers.”

But addressing people in their own language has become an international practice to show respect, she said.

“When I was new here in China, I preferred to use people’s English names,” said Nasir. “But since my Chinese has improved, I like to learn their Chinese name to show my sincerity, that I am willing to put an effort into learning their real name.”

Our thanks to Li Xueqing for permission to reprint her article which first appeared in China Daily.

About the Author

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz

Linda Rosenkrantz is the co-founder of Nameberry, and co-author with Pamela Redmond of the ten baby naming books acknowledged to have revolutionized American baby naming. You can follow her personally at InstagramTwitter and Facebook. She is also the author of the highly acclaimed New York Review Books Classics novel Talk and a number of other books.