Whats up with Chinese people having English names?

To sort out how English names became necessities in China, I recently spent an afternoon with Laurie Duthie, a UCLA doctoral candidate in anthropology whos finishing up her dissertation in Shanghai. Duthie has studied Chinese white-collar workers since 1997 and traces the popularity of English names in China back to the influx of foreign investment followingDeng Xiaopings market reforms. With foreign investment came foreigners, and many of Duthies research participants told her that they got tired of outsiders butchering their Chinese names, so they adopted English ones. If Betty Browns your boss, or if your boss cant say Du Xiao Hua, Id want to change my name, too, says Duthie.

Increasingly, these bosses are Chinese, yet the English names persist, in part because English tends to be the lingua franca for business technology, and even native Chinese often find it more efficient to type, write, or sign documents in English. Using English names also creates a more egalitarian atmosphere. Most forms of address in China reinforce pecking orders, such as Third Uncle and Second Daughter at home or Old Wang or Little Hu in the village square. Your given namecustomarily said in full, surname firstis reserved for use by those with equal or higher social standing, and the default honorific for an elder or superior is Teacherno surprise in a country that reveres education. But an English name, other than separating those with and without such names, frees users from these cultural hierarchies.

The Names Du Xiao Hua, But Call Me Steve

Texas state Rep. Betty Brownsuggested recentlythat Asian-Americans should change their names because theyre too difficult to pronounce. During public testimony for a voter-ID bill, she asked political activist Ramey Ko (who happens to be my cousin) why Chinese people dont adopt names for identification purposes that would be easier for Americans to deal with. I know I should denounce Browns coded use of American andpoint out thatRameyandKoare both easier to handle than, say,ZbigniewandBrzezinski. But, mainly, Im struck by how dramatically Brown misjudged her audience. If she wants to peddle her renaming plan, she should do it in China.

I still havent gotten around to choosing an English name. Maybe my being Chinese-American makes me feel like I already have enough identities, or maybe Ive at last outgrown my childhood angst. The other day, I asked my friend Zhengyu, a fellow American in China who also doesnt have an English name, why he had never picked one. At some point I just stopped caring about it, he said. I like my name, and I think it would be odd to hear another name identified with me. I have to agree with him. After all these years, Ive learned to treat my name like a big nose or a conspicuous birthmarknot my favorite feature, but a part of me all the same.

Whats up with Chinese people having English names?

Given thenationalismIve witnessed in China, I was a bit surprised at how readily Chinese adopted Western names. (Even my Americanized parents were uncomfortable with the idea of me changing my name. They said I could do as I wished when I turned 18, though always in a tone that suggested such an unfilial act would cause them to die of disappointment.) But Duthies participants insisted that taking an English name isnt kowtowing, nor is it simply utilitarian. Rather, its essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals. Whereas in the past patriotism was expressed by self-sacrifice, it is now expressed through economic activity. So by working for, say, 3M, Chinese citizens are helping to build up China, and the English names they take on in the process are as patriotic as Cultural Revolution-era monikers like Ai Guo (Loves China) or Wei Dong (Maos Protector).

Whats up with Chinese people having English names?

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In the United States, people tend to view names and identities as absolute thingswhich explains why I agonized over deciding on an English namebut in China, identities are more amorphous. My friend Sophie flits amongst her Chinese name, English name, MSN screen name, nicknames she uses with her friends, and diminutives that her parents call her. Theyre all me, she says. A name is just adai hao.Dai hao, or code name, can also refer to a stocks ticker symbol.

Whats up with Chinese people having English names?

Taking English names also fits with various traditional Chinese naming practices. In the past, children were given milk names when they were born, and then public names once they started school. Professionals and scholars used pseudonyms, orhao, that signified membership in an educated class. Confucius, born Kong Qiu, sometimes wrote under hiszi, or courtesy name, Zhongni. Even now, Chinese sometimes take new names to mark the start of a new job, entry to graduate school, or a marriage, as my coworkers Alpha and Beta did. They subsequently named their son Gamma. (For the record, Alpha is the male.)

When I moved to Shanghai about a year ago, I figured my name would finally seem normal. No longer would it be the albatross of my childhood in Utahmaking me stand out among the Johns, Steves, and Jordans. But when I introduced myself, I was met with blank stares, double takes, and requests for my English name. PeopleChinese peopleoften wondered whether I were being patronizing, like the fabled Frenchman who icily responds in English to an earnest Americans attempts to get directionsen fran├žais. My company almost didnt process my paperwork because I left the box for English name blank. You dont have an English name? the HR woman gasped. You should really pick one. She then waited for me to do just that, as if I could make such an important existential decision on the spot; I told her Id get back to her. PeopleChinese peoplehad trouble recalling my name. One guy at work, a Shanghai-born VP, called me Steve for almost three months. At my workplace, which is 90 percent mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school. The names ran the gamut, from the standard (Jackie, Ivy) to the unusual (Sniper, King Kong), but what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.

For now, English names remain limited to those living in urban areas or with access to educationask a migrant worker for his English name and youll get a quizzical look. But as China globalizes, more and more Chinese pass through checkpoints where theyll acquire English names. Since 2001, all primary schools have been required to teach English beginning in the third grade (for big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, lessons start in first grade), and parents regularly choose English names for their children. China now churns out approximately 20 million English speakers each year, and the estimated number of English learners in China is in the hundreds of millions. In fact, there are probably as many Chinese who can read this sentence as Americans.

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