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What's In A Name?

What's In A Name?

Editor's Note: The following article is part of an ongoing series of essays featuring the perspectives of foreigners and expats in China. The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the staff and management of Zhengzhou Connections.  

A couple of weeks ago I was busy trying to come up with English names for all of my students. This may sound like fun to people who imagine choosing baby names for children, and like the idea of trying to decide between a name that has a nice ring to it, or perhaps a name that is in honor of a friend or relative, or however else people choose names for babies.  The thing is though, that for me this time, it was as if I was choosing names for almost 150 babies, who were all born at once.  I teach four English classes right now, all Freshman, with about 140-some students divided between the four classes.  As Freshman, the students all wanted to be given English names, and as their first teacher in their first English class at university, it was up to me to give them names. I started by simply thinking of names that I like and writing them down on a list (oddly enough, I realized that a lot of my favorite English names start with the letter ‘J’, like Jennifer, Jessica, Jacob, or James, which seems to hint at some kind of subconscious narcism).


After I exhausted the names that I could think of off the top of my head, I began thinking of friends and relatives that I could name people after, and then on to actress names and other female celebrities.  What’s important to realize is that out of my four classes, probably about 12 of the students are boys, and the rest are all girls (my largest class is a class of 84 nursing students with only two boys in the class, and eighty-two 18 year old girls).


I finally resorted to looking at lists of baby names online to try and get more ideas.  I was trying to give each student a different name, which proved more difficult than I thought it would be, especially for the class of nursing students (I later realized that I mistakenly had two Grace’s, two Kayla’s and Vicky and Vicki in the nursing class, and as much as I tried to persuade the girls that this was more like real life where you find people with the same name as you from time to time, that was unacceptable to them, so they demanded new names).


The funny part of looking at these lists of baby names was just how obscure and dated some of the names seemed to be.  Here’s a sample of names that I passed on, but were on various websites as supposedly popular names for baby girls:


Demelza, Edwardina, Ludella, Octavia, Orlan, Orva, Olga, Pandora, Prunella, Ulrica, Stockard


Toward the end when I was almost finished finding names and desperate for that last one or two, I was tempted to use some of those, but then thought that it would be too cruel. I could just imagine one of my students becoming a famous politician or professor someday, and introducing themselves as ‘Prunella Wang’, or ‘Stockard Chen’.  There seems to be a tradition of Chinese people adopting strange sounding English names (I know a boy here who goes by the name ‘Black’, and a girl who goes by ‘Slipper’, and those are some of the less outrageous examples).  I was trying to give my students more respectable names though, names that are popular now (as opposed to a century or two ago like the Edwardinas and Demelzas above), and names that aren’t simply for the entertainment of other foreign English teachers like myself.  It did occur to me that I could probably have made things easier on myself by just looking at objects around the house and coming up with names that way, names like Sofa, Bookcase, Hatrack, Clothesline, and Spatula, but I’m pretty sure my students are too smart to fall for that.


One of the things that has long intrigued me about Chinese culture is the apparent desire among many Chinese people to adopt an English name if they are studying English or have contact with English speaking people.  I was asking my students why they wanted English names, mostly just as a rhetorical question, and none of them seemed to be able to give me a very satisfying answer beyond "because it’s cool”.  Maybe that really is all there is to it, but I find it interesting that in China, a country where people often have a very strong sense of national and cultural identity, and pride associated with that identity, people are still fully willing to go about using their English name whenever interacting with non-Chinese people. I even meet people here sometimes who don’t seem to have much contact with foreigners, who don’t speak English very often, if ever, and haven’t used their English name for 10 or more years maybe, but when they meet me and try to introduce themselves, they rack their brains trying to remember the English name that they were given by a teacher years ago in a university class of their own.  This kind of situation makes me wonder just how much a person can identify with a name that they are casually given when they are in their twenties like this.  Especially if you haven’t used the name for a number of years, what’s the point in even having it and trying to introduce yourself that way?  Sometimes I think that it must be that Chinese people assume that foreigners can’t pronounce or remember Chinese names, and so they feel they have to offer an English name as a crutch for those of us who are culturally handicapped.  Other times I wonder if the use of English names here doesn’t say more the Chinese sense of ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’.  When a person interacts with Chinese people they use their Chinese name, but when they interact with foreigners or are in an English class, they are in another world (so to speak), and feel they need to adopt a different name and persona to fit into that world.  There is no overlapping of cultures, no blending, the two are mutually exclusive.


Part of what makes me wonder this is that I also have people asking me from time to time if I have a Chinese name, to which my first answer is "No”, and my second answer is, again rhetorically, "Do I need one?”.  

I happen to like my name.  It’s part of who I am; I’ve been Josh for 27 years, and that’s who I feel comfortable being. People here have trouble remembering and pronouncing my name sometimes (many have never heard of the name ‘Joshua’ before, unless they have read the Bible), but I don’t feel the need to give myself a Chinese name just to make things easier on myself or others.  I feel like people connect with me more if they use my real name, and I feel like I connect with Chinese people more if I know their Chinese names, which is why I often ask people for their Chinese names here, even if they introduce themselves only by their English name at first. I’m happy to refer to people by their English name if they prefer that, but if I don’t know their original Chinese name, it feels like I haven’t really gotten to know them, like there’s something important about them that I’m cut off from.


Meanwhile, in my English classes, we are all still trying to remember each other’s fancy new English names. There’s commonly confusion among students as to who is who whenever I take roll, and often quite a bit of giggling when I refer to the students by their English names.  It’s clearly something that they are still getting used to and trying to feel comfortable with.  They are good groups of students though, very enthusiastic as they begin their time at university, and I enjoy my time in the classroom with them.


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