Choosing Chinese Names: more dangerous than you think

We are overdue to have Chinese names. But for Westerners, choosing a good Chinese name is harder than you might think. One American that my teacher knows picked her own name, choosing the characters in part based on what looked nice. She didn’t know it, but her named ended up meaning “insecticide.”

People have to call you something, and the average person on the street in China is going to have serious trouble hearing, pronouncing, and remembering most English names (and vice versa in North America).

Chinese given-names also carry relatively more meaning than English names do. Many Chinese are very careful about what name they choose for their children, sometimes even paying professionals to pick the best sounding and most auspicious name. It’s a popular belief that a name can affect a person’s destiny and success.

When Mainland Chinese choose English names, it’s often based entirely on meaning. For example, a friend of ours is teaching several hundred students at a local university. In her classes she has students named: “Star,” “Moon,” “Taste,” “Apple,” “Banana”… and every English teacher here has lists like this. In Taiwan they seemed to do much better with their English names, though we did get a “Grack” and a “Neo.” Often the English teacher gets to give the students their English names. Peter Hessler, author of River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze, used names of his family members and stereotypically African American names like “Shaniqua” to name his students. Other teachers name their students after characters from their favourite TV show (like Jerry, Kramer, Elaine, and George). Sometimes boys accidentally pick girls’ names. In Texas we knew a girl from Macao who changed her English name from Sam to Cinderella when she found out Sam was a boy’s name. “Cinderella” went on to become the first international student (and probably the first non-sorority president) to win Homecoming Queen. We were proud.

So, choosing a Chinese name… How do you avoid getting the Chinese equivalent of Taste, Kramer, or Grack when you are new to the language and it would take decades to learn and feel all the possible meanings associated with potential names?

You could get a Chinese name from your Mandarin teacher. They often give names, sometimes simply assigning the transliteration of the student’s English name on the first day of class. Neither of us want that; transliterated names sound funny to native Mandarin speakers, and the first character of mine is also apparently shared by George Bush. You could also ask (and trust) a really close Chinese friend who knows you well to give you a good one. Jessica I think will go this route. I’m going a third route: pick some ideas/themes that you like, decide if you care more about meaning or phonetic closeness to your English name, and ask a bunch of Chinese friends to suggest some names with explanations. I sent the e-mail out Sunday and suggestions are coming in. I’ll post them when most or everyone has replied.

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