Why didn’t I think of that?


One of the things you discover when you come to China is that everyone has an ‘English’ name as well as their proper Chinese name.   Chinese people firmly believe that no foreigners can pronounce their names so in order to get good jobs and succeed in life they need a name that Westerners will feel comfortable with, and will remember.

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In a way this is understandable, it is true that on first meeting it is often difficult to take in and recall a Chinese name. However, Japanese people have equally ‘difficult’ names if you look at it like that, yet the Japanese have never seen the need to equip themselves with a Western name and they get on in the wider world just fine.

This whole English/Chinese name conundrum hit me again this week when a new member of staff joined the concierge group at our residence. She is a delightful young woman who speaks little English, but she is very willing and very helpful.  Her English name is ‘Friday’.  Why did she choose it? or did she, like 70% of Chinese, get given it by her teacher when she was at school.  Should I gently hint that this is not really considered a ‘name’ in the English sense? it could cause all sorts of complications – if an English speaking  resident says to her ‘I expect a delivery on Friday’ or something like that, confusion can set in.

English language teachers here in China are, on the whole, Chinese citizens who have learned the language without ever meeting any native English speakers.  They seem to choose names on a very arbitrary basis, from books, films, western t.v. programmes, advertisements, catalogues and even calendars.  If a student makes it into a good university here in China they may well change their name to one they think is better/more appropriate, but sometimes they jump from the frying pan into the fire – for instance a young man who changed his English name from Gerry to Hitler because he thought that Hitler was a strong, courageous and famous western leader!

Many Chinese have no idea that their name is inappropriate.  My DH was interviewing a very clever, well-educated young woman for a job that would take her to Edinburgh on a regular basis. Her chosen English name was Lolita.  After the interview he felt he had to be blunt, and told her that she could not work in the financial sector in the UK or anywhere else in the west with that name, because  it would give out all the wrong messages, and that she should get advice and choose a new, less provocative, English name.

English speaking Westerners living in China are often asked to suggest names for people. Over the years I must have named a couple of dozen individuals!

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Some years ago I was down in Kunming and a young man called ‘Fred’ was introduced to me by his new boss. The boss said very firmly that he had been looking at names, and he thought that English speakers would consider ‘Fred’ to be the name for a labourer, not a new young executive.  Fred had been given his name by his teacher when at school.           We all sat down with some green tea and discussed names, finally settling on Jeffrey. In a nano-second Fred was dead and Jeffrey, like a phoenix, rose from the ashes. He is still Jeffery and now a very successful chap. He always greets me warmly, and whispers in my ear -‘do you remember Fred?’.

In the UK/US media there have been a couple of articles about two young women – one American, one English – who have set up websites to help Chinese parents choose their baby’s English name.  The websites are in Chinese, they are interactive, and after a few tick-box type questions they supply a choice of three or four names. They both charge a flat-fee for the service.  According to everything I have read, business is booming and both are earning a tidy little income.

Why didn’t I think of doing this?  All this time I have been handing out free naming advice, never thinking the concept could be monetized – obviously I am not a natural entrepreneur – I could have been rich by now….boo hoo!

About herschelian

Recently moved to Beijing from London - its all new to me! Trying to learn Chinese, and what makes this city tick.
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16 Responses to Why didn’t I think of that?

  1. Jennie says:

    “English”names were one of the weirdest things Trev found when teaching English in a school in Hong Kong during his gap year – Hymen and Vulva were 2 that I remember!

  2. Chris says:

    Well, we can have related problems on the other side of the ocean, too. A Chinese middle school student came to US for schooling. His uncle asked if Wei Wei was a good name for him to keep in the US. Ah, we cut it back to Wei. The young man already had enough to deal with.
    Welcome back! Your fans missed you.

  3. tantalus2013 says:

    Thank you for the edutainment, more stuff I didn’t know about presented in an interesting and amusing blog.

  4. herschelian says:

    Thanks for your comment tantalus2013 – I hope you never suffer Blogger’s block!

  5. camparigirl says:

    My oncologist, who came here from China 20 years ago, goes by Jenny. I asked her what her real name was and I have to admit I already forgot it, it was so long and foreign sounding. We should make more of an effort. I wouldn’t dream of changing my name if I moved to China or Pakistan!

  6. Oh yeah the dear English names in China. I wonder what weird name I have seen/ heard thus far. I will never forget that one guy working at KFC named “Wendy”…

  7. Behind the Story says:

    I’ve always thought that the reason Chinese have no problem having both a Chinese name and an English name is that Chinese have a tradition of having more than one Chinese name. My husband and his siblings, for example, all had names they used when they were children and other, more adult names that they used when they were older, and those names had no relation to their youthful names. I don’t know how common that custom is in modern China, but it may have got the ball rolling.

    • herschelian says:

      You are absolutely right that most Chinese have two Chinese names, one for childhood and one for adulthood. In fact I have been to two ‘One month since birth’ celebrations and at both of them the parents announced what – after much thought and consultation – the ‘proper’ name of the child would be, and at the same time announced what the baby/child would be called. Often a diminutive such as Xiao Li or Xiao xiao is chosen.
      But when I asked about the use of an English name, I was consistently told that was because westerners couldn’t remember/pronounce their Chinese names – and also that it was better for career and business reasons to have an English name.

      • Behind the Story says:

        As you said above, Japanese (and Indian and Sri Lankan, etc.) names can also be hard for us to pronounce. For some reason, though, the Chinese don’t hold onto their names as tightly as some other national groups. As you said, they’re also practical enough to care if they have a name that helps their business interests. My husband’s childhood name was Ah Chiu, “Ah” plus the Hokkien pronunciation of the second syllable of Fuzhou, where he was conceived. His older sister was Ah Bee from “baby” in English.

  8. herschelian says:

    I think your analysis is right, the Chinese are practical when it comes to things like this! I can think of a few English folk with ‘unfortunate’ surnames, who might well profit from changing them by deed poll.

  9. Bea dM says:

    How very bizarre! I’m still laughing at Lolita in the financial sector 🙂 If it’s such a big market, there may still be room for you too…

  10. Steven Kirk says:

    Another potential pitfall for Chinese parents wishing to name their child is that they may not be aware of the fact that English names become fashionable and unfashionable. For example, I don’t know any Mauds, Ermintrudes, Arthurs or Isambards, never mind Kylies or Taylors. Class too, can be conveyed in a name: Olivers tend to huddle together in the upper echelons of society. It must be an absolute minefield for anyone who hasn’t grown up in a native English-speaking environment.

    • herschelian says:

      You are absolutely right – certainly in the UK names go in and out of fashion. But it is swings and roundabouts – my daughter’s generation are starting to use some very (to my mind) old-fashioned names – I know of 3 little Arthurs, two Elsies, one Doris and no less than four Wilfreds!!!!! Wilfred, heavens above! What my snobbish mother used to call ‘maid’s names’ are also in vogue – Ruby, Rose, Lily etc. Its a minefield.

  11. Steven Kirk says:

    Of course, it also works the other way round. A student of ours, when he first arrived in China, adopted a name that literally meant ‘immediately successful’, without realizing that the Chinese version had unfortunate connotations.

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