In China, I’ve been served dessert by a girl named “Cake.” One of my neighbors goes by the name “Carton” (he jokingly says, “It’s French, it’s pronounced Car-TONE.”). Two of my newest friends in Beijing are a dynamic duo that go by the names “Ice” and “Tool.”
The “English name” phenomenon in China was surprising, entertaining and puzzling at the same time for me. In many parts of China (especially in Hong Kong) everyone has two names: Their Chinese name and their English name. As far as I can derive, this is for three main reasons:
- In times gone by, an English name was a sign of status and a sign that one had been to University or been abroad.
- In the computer age, it is often easier to type/print someone’s English name (example: “Jackie”) rather than his Chinese name (“港生” pronounced and ofter written in English as “Sing Lung”).
- Westerners often have a difficult time pronouncing and/or remembering Chinese names. As in, its easier for us to remember Jackie Chan, rather than Chan Sing Lung(陳成龍) [in Chinese, the surname is listed first, as in this case: Chan]. As Westernization continues, there becomes a need/expectation for a western name.
Chinese people seem to choose their English name in many ways. I find it interesting that it is a rare situation in which one actually gets to choose ones own name, a privileged in America typically held for movie stars and those in the witness protection program.
Some Chinese take a lot of time to decide on their name, consulting English teachers and the like in picking their name, others seem to nonchalantly pick something that sounds good and change it just as arbitrarily. Still others try literal translations of their Chinese name, as in Zhang Chao (<- first name last), who may translated his name (chao ‘超’ literally meaning “super”), and go as Super Zhang—-in my opinion, not all too bad of a name. Others use names they they feel represent their personality as in Monkey, Turtle, or Promise. Just like Americans, some people name themselves after famous people. Since Hollywood films are so prevalent here, you may run into Tom, Brad, and Julia.
Below is a little short video on ‘Chinese English Names’ from DanweiTV, a great little blog (primarily written in English) and media group that produces videos and blogs about Chinese media, advertising and life.