The Name Game

Trip Start Oct 05, 2009
Trip End Mar 28, 2010

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Flag of China  ,
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In one of my previous entries, I wondered about the influence of the West.  One thing that I didn't realize before is how this is most apparent with names.  I wonder at what point did it become almost a requirement for people in China to select a Western name. 

It is a fun thing... picking a name.  I suppose the Westerners who come to China have the same experience when they pick a Chinese name.  Only for them, it is a lot harder to write and remember.  Usually it's a transliteration, a name from an actor/actress of the same name or just the characters which they are easy or look cool.

When I was in Europe, I had a few conversations like the following:

"Hi, I'm Edward."
"Good to meet you, Edward.  But what's your real name?"

"What do you mean?"
"You know... your real in Chinese, Jing jang jong or something?"

"Oooh, haha... yeah I have one but I don't really use it."
"Hmm, why not?"

"Well, 'Edward' is the official one, I never write my Chinese name for anything."
"That's what it says on your birth certificate??"

"Ah, ok."

(Internal sigh)

I suppose Europeans take pride in understanding people's backgrounds and thought, "wow, I'm going to impress this person and be curious about his true name."  Boy were they disappointed.  Let's fast-forward to now.

In Beijing, I sometimes wonder which name to use too.  Like I said, officially, I am Edward.  But sometimes, it seems out of place when everyone introduces themselves with their Chinese name.  Just imagine a circle of Chinese people and me.  Everyone saying in Mandarin, "I am so-and-so... I moved here, etc."  And then "Edward" breaks the rhythm of it all.  Thanks a lot, Edward.

So what's my criteria?  Well, most of the time I use "Edward."  I usually only say my name in Chinese if people ask what it is. Because with my English/official name:
- I respond best to it.
- The selection prevents confusion/difficulties in case someone hasn't heard it before.
- It helps ease into the fact that my Mandarin isn't perfect (less pressure too).
- It is a fairer reflection of my background.
- It is an easier transition if I need to start speaking English.

At the same time, however, many Chinese people begin to start favoring their Western names.  This tends to happen because 1) it is easier to remember 2) they treat it more of a nickname or 3) they find it more unique than their Chinese name 4) for business purposes.  So I can understand all those reasons.  Since there are many Chinese people, the chances are, someone might have your name already.

I think in the end, though, it comes down to comfort.  People need to be comfortable with who they are and a name is a significant part of one's identity. 
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joseph on

nice post ed! reminded me of an interesting article i read awhile back in Slate:

jetsedder on

Thanks, Joseph!

I liked the article... it was really interesting to hear another side. The article's closing statements were a bit sad though with the "big nose" part, haha... but at least it was honest.

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