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Finding your perfect English name

Publication Date : 13-03-2014


When Phantom meets Tears, you can be sure something vivid will happen


How can a person stand out in a country of 1.35 billion? One safe, inexpensive and relatively stress-free way is to choose an unusual English name.

At least 795 people share Zhang Chaoyu's name, according to the online name database But how many of them are also called Lavendery? Probably no one but the Beijing high school student, who wanted a "more graceful-sounding" version of "lavender", the English equivalent of her Chinese nickname.

"I'd thought about changing my English name, because Lavendery has more letters than common English names, and some Chinese people can't easily remember its spelling," the 15-year-old says. "But I love it. It's my unique symbol."

Ji Yanyan feels the same way about Cereal. Of course, it is more commonly found on breakfast tables than business cards, but there is no doubt her English name makes an impression.

"Both foreigners and Chinese say that it's extraordinary, and people always remember me," says Ji, 25, an editor with a trade publication in Beijing.

Her name choice was inspired by the 2007 film Flakes, which starred one of her favourite US actresses, Zooey Deschanel. The movie title's Chinese translation included "oats", a homonym of Ji's Chinese nickname and something she loved to eat, so she picked a related word with the help of a dictionary.

Chinese people usually get an English name in high school or college English class. Others get one once they start working and regularly deal with foreigners, who may have trouble pronouncing their Chinese names.

But how they end up with some of these English names is what gives this endeavour its "Chinese characteristics".

Many mainlanders are given conventional English names by their teachers, or end up with common ones that sound like their Chinese names (for example, David for Dawei and Tracy for Cui Li).

A good number adopt the names of foreign celebrities or fictional characters, including Lebron (James, the basketball player), Eminem (the rapper), and Peter for a man surnamed Pan.

The rest go with whatever word appeals to them, including adjectives (Vivid), verbs (Happen), animals (Dolphin), brands (KFC) and common nouns (Tears). Even the criminally related (Killer) is fair game.

Some prefer names that belong to the opposite sex, such as a college girl named Jesse and a male business manager called Venus.

Then there are the creative types like Tauver, an airline employee who came up with a name rooted in her astrological sign Taurus, and the parents of 3-year-old Arwenry, who merged the name of a character in the novel "The Lord of the Rings" (Arwen) with part of their daughter's Chinese name (Rui).

But nothing screams unique like Uniqueen. The combination of "unique" and "queen" can be attributed to a Beijing teenager who wanted a name more memorable than Angel.

After three years of dealing with such peculiar English names at a college in eastern China, John Pasden finally said, "No more".

"I told them they had to change their name," the native of Tampa, Florida, said in a May 2004 entry on his blog. "They would often protest, saying they had used the name for years already. I would tell them, 'Well, you can keep it, but you can't use it in my class. Pick a real name.' Then I would hand them a big, long list of popular baby names that they could choose from."

Pasden, who has since built a linguistics, education and technology career in China, believes it is teachers' responsibility to inform non-native speakers that English names cannot be chosen at random. Names are a kind of English vocabulary and how they are chosen reflects a cultural tradition, he says in the blog post.

The knowledge will be particularly helpful, Pasden says in a recent e-mail, to people who plan to live in predominantly English-speaking countries and do not want their names to be the target of ridicule.

Choosing unusual English names is not peculiar to the mainland Chinese. This is a manifestation of how various countries are assimilating English into their native cultures, says Stephen Matthews, a linguistics professor specializing in bilingualism at the University of Hong Kong.

"This is something we recognise to be normal. English begins to diverge as soon as it goes to a different part of the world," he says, citing Australia, Singapore and Hong Kong as examples.

Since mainland Chinese do not speak standard English, and most will always live in their native country, Matthews thinks it is nonessential for them to choose conventional English names.

Hang Haojie, for one, has found a way to navigate the land mine of English naming.

The native of Shanghai, who now works in Seattle, goes by his Chinese given name's initials HJ whenever he is around colleagues or casual acquaintances. But when it is just him and old friends, the 26-year-old goes back to being Hungry, a name bestowed on him as a middle school student in China, because of his voracious appetite.

Xing Yi and Guo Xin contributed to this story.


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