Sunday, October 2, 2016

Do You Have an English Name?

T'is the season, again, for freshmen to hit the classrooms. Tanned from their 2-week military stint, they eagerly await their foreign teacher's dispensations: of tales from the west, of ways to learn English better, of a name they can proudly boast. One of the most common questions my freshly minted students ask: “Can you give me an English name?”

I most certainly can, but the range of names that originate in England or other English speaking nations is pretty small. Considering I have upwards of seventy students in each of my freshman classes, I would have several 'Cate's, 'Bartholomew's, and 'Winston's per group. That might get confusing.

Names in China are endowed with special power and meaning. Naming a child is a significant responsibility (and honor). Traditionally, the most venerated family member is tasked with naming the newcomer, and coming up with just the right name can take several weeks. Some families would even consult monks and fortune tellers, paying heftily for a most auspicious name because of the belief that one's name forecasts one's fortune.

Here, the story of one girl who was particularly unruly in her youth. Her behavior was puzzling because her parents had consulted a fortune teller shortly after her birth, and named her according to that mystic's suggestion. By 5 years old, she clearly wasn't living up to that name – she was so naughty! Again, they went to the temple. Another soothsayer exclaimed that she had been given the wrong name at birth and suggested another name. The girl, now 9 years old and constantly in trouble, was again dragged to the temple. Another horrified exclamation over her misnaming, and another name given.

In all, that poor child was renamed 4 times. She finally chose her own name (and her own fortune) after graduating college.

These days, with Chinese tradition melting faster than polar ice caps, parents, uncles and even family friends can author names. When I first came to China, my students revealed that their grandparents (or a monk) gave them their names; these days it is parents or uncles/aunts, and nobody claims any monk named them. Still, Chinese names have special significance. 

If names are indeed that important in China, why would the Chinese think names are any less important in the west?

They are. I am sure you have heard people correcting a speaker on how their name is said. Maybe you have done it yourself. Surely you have asked a person to spell their name, or have been asked to spell yours. It is a measure of respect to say and write someone's name correctly. Should that respect extend to that name's origin, as well?

“Do you have an English name?”

No, I don't. My name originates from Greece. In fact, most names commonly used in the west, that are called 'English names' in China, stem from Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Greek, Spanish and various countries in Africa. So, the blanket phrase 'English name' – 英文名字 (ying wen ming zi), so commonly used in China, is inaccurate.

And here is where I run into trouble.

When I point out and try to correct that inaccuracy, I am told: “'English name' is just the way we refer to all names in the west. There is nothing wrong with that.” In other words, just accept the error and move on. It is unimportant.

I beg to differ.  

Not only because names are as important in the west as they are in China, but because of pride of heritage. Just like the Chinese, westerners are proud of their origins. Quite often, their name reflects that. And because it suggests all western names are just names with no meaning or tradition attached. And because implying all western names are English names extends the misbegotten idea that 'the west' is synonymous with America – an idea that plagues most Chinese.

I can understand why foreign names are all considered English, thinking about the historic impact that English-speaking 'invaders' have had on the country: Americans settled Shanghai; British took over Hong Kong; and that today, English speaking nations are most politically impactful and English-spoken movies and TV shows are most commonly watched.

Still, other countries have had influence on China: cars from Germany and France, a flood of students from various African countries, trade partnerships with South America. 

So, why is it that China insists western names are English names? Wouldn't it be equally easy – and more correct to say: “你的西方名字叫什么?” (ni de xi fang ming zi jiao shen me?) - “what is your western name?”

If supermarkets are filled with sales people urging you to buy Spanish olive oil, Danish cookies and German chocolate; if car lots are filled with Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens (and VWs, BMWs and Audis); if entire college dormitories are filled with students from all over the world, why stick with 'English names'? Names, too, come from all over!  

C'mon, China! Let this foreign teacher do the job you hired her to do: correct misperceptions and broaden perspectives. Please don't limit yourself only to 'English names'; that denies the rest of the world and its many wonders, including meanings of exotic names like: Jasmine ('flower of the olive family', from Africa), Erica ('Honorable Ruler' in Danish) and Linda ('beautiful' in Spanish).

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