On the politics of English names in China

Roughly 12 hours after landing in China, fresh off the back of a messy break-up and fresh out of Europe for the first time in my life, I staggered up to the Reception desk of my new school and introduced myself as coherently as I could manage as the new English teacher.

“You need Fish and Shopping”, the receptionist announced.

“I’m sorry?” I replied, my neural synapses fizzling around vague notions of an Omega-3-and-retail-therapy-based jet lag cure.

“Fish. And Shopping. The HR managers. This way please”

Hang around any group of ESL teachers in the Middle Kingdom for more than five minutes and the subject of their students’ English names will come up. Some are convenient Anglicisations of names or surnames (I taught a lot of Lees and Lynnes); others choose favourite fictional characters (High School classes were rarely without at least one Harry Potter namesake, Draco and Severus included) whilst still others opt for any noun they feel affinity with (my personal fave: the gym aficionado named Muscle).

And to be fair, there is undeniable humour to be found in hearing yourself yell ‘Muscle, Challenge!’ during a heated game of ‘Just a Minute’ with a roomful of teenagers.

But. But. I always felt slightly itchy about not knowing my students’ real names. The standard reason given for the practice of taking English names is that foreigners can’t remember them, or that they’re too tough for us to pronounce. In fact, my school didn’t even list students’ Chinese names on the register. And sure, Chinese names are different to European ones. But…isn’t that kind of par for the course when you go and work in, er, China? It felt disrespectful for me as a teacher to be ‘renaming’ my students for me own convenience. There’s also a particularly nasty history associated with the ‘giving’ of European names by white people to people of colour, which made referring to Xiu Ying as ‘Tina’ especially uncomfortable.

When I approached this topic with my students, their answers surprised me. There was only one who refused to take an English name, reasoning that his two syllables – one of which had more or less the same pronunciation as ‘way’ – would not be beyond the reach of even the most hapless of foreigners. ‘And anyway’, he said, ‘it’s my name. It’s who I am. Foreigners don’t take Chinese names, so why should I change mine?’

His classmates, though, found his attachment to his name as a marker of identity a bit odd, and in fact paradoxically foreign, citing the many times Chinese people have traditionally changed their names to mark a new stage of life. For many of them, an English name was also a handy way of opting out of the finickity etiquette around forms of address: first names are only used for those on the same or a lower social level, otherwise an honourific title must be used. The advantages of bypassing this system – particularly in a business context – were clear.

I was interested to learn that it was my own Eurocentric conception of identity that had contributed to my unease around name-changing. However, the nagging feeling that the practice was part of an unbalanced relationship remained. As my student had said, surely if Chinese names are so hard to remember the difficulty is reciprocated so why wasn’t I ever encouraged to become Liu Xi?

There were to be many more dents in my Eurocentrism by the time I left China, and many more questions than I could hope to explore around the imbalance between the Western world and our expectations of everyone else. But the politics of names and name-changing remains a fascination and I always love to hear views on the topic! Please comment below and let me know your thoughts!

Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.

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