First, there are the inner workings of Chinese culture that guide Chinese students' thinking and, when it comes to selecting a name from a foreign culture, quite often lead them wrong. It is not as easy as an American using Juan for John in Spanish class. Chinese as a language has no common ground with English, so translations between the two cannot maintain the spirit and sound of the original language. Added to that, Chinese names follow traditional conventions that are embedded in the culture. It is not as simple as flipping through a book of baby names and choosing "Ethan" because that name is fashionable now and you like its sound. A Chinese baby will have a family name followed by (traditionally) a generation name and a given name. And because every written Chinese character has a literal meaning, most every Chinese knows what every part of their full name means or conveys.
I had a student ask me to help her choose an English name that was related to water and meant calm. With the meaningless names in English-speaking culture, that's not so easy to do. Lacking an encyclopedic knowledge of names, I focused on "calm" and suggested she use Serena, but she sifted through some possibilities and settled on Delphine. I think Delphine is a pretty name and her choice worked out, but she vetted quite a few candidates first and asked a native speaker about their soundness. Now, imagine the pitfalls awaiting those who would strike out independently to choose their own name. If the shoe were on the other foot, imagine you tried choosing your own Chinese name. My guess is that it would be some variant of a famous Chinese actor's name, or you might just tack "Lee" onto the end of your real name. And by the way, did you know that Bruce Lee's full Chinese name translates to Li Little Dragon? I knew his nickname was "The Dragon," but I found that in Chinese culture, not only are children named after objects, with dragons being as popular as they are, children can be named Little Dragon. Americans anymore seem to go for a 3:1 mix of traditional to made-up/nonsense names, but Little Dragon Hansen would still make the "News of the Weird" section of the newspaper.
My first Chinese name was given to me by my friend and Chinese tutor, Caili Ma. She asked what my name meant, then listened to the pronunciation of my surname, and came up with Li Da-Sen (李大森). I think the written characters are beautiful and this name has a good sound, but my Aunt Fang told me it was no good based on Tai Chi naming principles (e.g. Make sure the name has a good number of horizontal strokes), plus it was the name of a bad character in some kind of story or myth. I insisted that I wanted to keep the name to honor my friend, Caili, but Aunt Fang insisted that Caili would be fine with the change, and her friends all echoed that it had an unpleasant meaning and persuaded me to go with Le Da-Sheng (乐达声), which means "joy" and "to pass on." In my opinion, the name looks ugly on paper and doesn't sound much better, but it's not my language, so I had to defer and trust Aunt Fang on this one.
|At my house with Caili. She probably considered naming me "White Giant."|
So what were the names chosen for English class and online profiles, both popular and ridiculous? Well, the most popular names were the most sensible: Leo and Lily. This was a simple switch from the Chinese surnames Li, Le, and Liu. There were also quite a few traditional names like James, John, and Sarah. In one class, a couple students even added English surnames, so I had the very plain John Smith and the Batman villain-inspired James Riddler. James was an odd duck, and yes, I made a point of calling them by their full names in class because I got a kick out of calling Chinese students "John Smith" and "James Riddler." Speaking of ducks and other animals, in that same class I had a student who went by Monkey, another who went by Koala, and of course following Koala there was a student named Bear. These guys didn't have much explanation for their names ("Because I'm a Monkey! He, he!"), but I remember Bear said his was a nickname donned him for his temper. Bear was real pleasant in class, but the first day I thought he was a member of the faculty or somebody's parent because he had a dark, strong complexion that made him look 20 years older than everyone else. I would have believed him if he would have told me, "I'm Koala's dad, and that's why my name is Bear."
|From l-r their names (used in English class) are Maxwell, Sun Xue Tao, Monkey, Bear, Li Wei Ying, and Goofy|
One student went by Jet, after Jet Li, which I thought was pretty cool but not very practical if he ever found himself living or doing business internationally. As for other movie and television characters, one girl went by Sherry (this name was used quite a bit because it is not too distant from the sound of several Chinese names) who wanted to change her name because her classmate also went by Sherry. So she opted for Conan, her favorite anime character. I tried to convince her otherwise, but she loved the name so much she didn't care that it was for boys. See what I mean about the absurdities of choosing a pet name or word?
|At my pleading, Conan has since chosen to go by her Chinese nickname, Xiao. I've been thinking about using this picture for the cover of a book called China: Not Always Bad|
The most shameful, unknowingly stupid names, though, came when Chinese speakers chose objects- words with literal meanings- and declared them to be their English name. Now, for women this can work. There were Lily's, like I mentioned, and other plant names like Daisy and Ivy, and nature names like Summer also work to an extent. I met a girl named Spring and I told her, "Summer Autumn, and Winter are all women's names, but I've never heard of Spring as a name, and I can't explain why." One girl covered every base by going with Season (at least I think that was her intent, she may have been a big fan of nutmeg). I also met a Snowy and a Rainbow, who was a sweet girl, and I had to stifle myself from blurting out to her, "Rainbow is not a name!"
One male student went by Sky. Not short for Skyler, simply Sky. He was probably the most entertaining student I had; whenever I called on him the whole class would react with anticipation and start cracking up as he formed sentences through convulsions of laughter. He was responsible for the third funniest moment I had in the classroom, which went like this: I was leading a discussion about Chinese perceptions of America and American perceptions of China, and the students were quiet and unresponsive as usual, so I was repeating myself, "What's famous in China? Come on, what's famous in China?" A murmur started to build and I asked, "What?" And the class responded, "You!" I said, "Well, maybe I'm famous here in Fengyang" (a small city where I was the only white foreigner). Then Sky, with a big, sideways grin across his face, spoke up and said, "You are famous in my heart!" Everyone lost it for a moment and I had to wipe the tears away from my eyes and laugh it all out before I could regain my composure.
|On the last day of class, I insisted on taking a picture with Sky. I should have insisted on using a tripod.|
Other odd literal names included Key, and pet names like Cookie and Cherry. One student was called Loose, and that sounded too stupid to be true, surely I misheard that, so I called him Lewis until I saw Loose written down on the attendance sheet. Loose himself never corrected me because A) he never showed up to class, and B) he couldn't understand a word of spoken English. The mixed bag of nonsense was filled with names like Effil, Vienen, Disie (who was an English teacher and ought to know better), and Songsux ("My Chinese name is Song, so my English name is Songsux. It has no meaning!" I didn't have the heart to burst his bubble).
All of these bizarre names are neither the exception nor the rule, but a farcical phenomenon when meeting Chinese English speakers of any ability. This sampling does not deny that there were plenty of good choices like Amy, Emily, Peter, Paul, Jenny, and the (sigh) Twilight-inspired Bella. I think my favorite of all was Milton, the name chosen, fittingly, by the head of the university's English department.
I have saved my favorite stupid name for last, a run-off between two outlandish competitors. The first was from a middle school boy who came up to me and shouted in that Chinese way of speaking, "My English name 'Beyond.'" "'Beyond?!'" I said, and I didn't know whether to guffaw or bridle so I did both. "That's not even a noun, it's an adverb." It is a preposition, too. I think the kid was excited with his choice, and I didn't mean to crush him by being far less than impressed, but that name was just too much.
The other unforgettable, infamous name shocked me when I was out to lunch with a group of other foreign English teachers and a few Chinese students and teachers. One Chinese owner of a small English school, a little pudgy and maybe a couple years older than I was, came up to me and shook my hand with a look on his face and such conviction in his grip that I felt like I were a national hero who had just returned from a rocket trip to the moon. "Hello, I am Hamburger," he said, "I really like to make a friend with you." I couldn't help but laugh. "Hamburger, I really like your name." Hamburger was one of those who became a little obsessive of me and wanted to be possessive of my time.
One last thing I'll mention on names. My Aunt Fang had chosen the name Rose for herself, and her husband, my "Uncle" Jiang, asked me for assistance in selecting an English name and told me he liked the name Jack. That is what he ended up choosing, so it was Jack and Rose. It was unplanned, and it inspired a few sweet giggles, but it was romantic nonetheless.