Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Naming of Names

My expat friends and I often have a gentle laugh about the kinds of English names chosen by our students. Although many Chinese will choose normal sorts of names, and some will choose beautiful and unusual names, many more choose whimsical names that could make even a hippy envious. Sometimes, of course, the fault lies entirely with the interesting sense of humor that English teachers have. Names which would never have survived the 'oh, but what will the other kids twist that into' test--back in the States--are given room to flourish in a country where most will not understand all the implications.

There is no harm in it, usually, college students or even young kids are not burdened by names like Zeus, Toxic, or even Skeletor. What surprises me more are the hardened professionals who seem to have held on to their English nicknames and now use them in a corporate setting. The representative of a major international hotel chain whose chosen English name is "Only", for example, or a CEO of a minor corporation quoted in a news story I read a while back whose name was "Eagle". I suppose their international peers are too polite to say anything, and among their Chinese peers the English name matters not.

But I don't mean to suggest that the silliness with names is only a Chinese peccadillo. When choosing Chinese names, the expats and exchange students often choose purposefully silly or evocative names. One Canadian who has lived in China for more than a decade and a half, and has become a household name here, is simply called Da Shan, or 'Big Mountain'. The simple name hasn't hurt him professionally it seems, as he has his own TV show on the English language channel and stares at me from the sides of milk boxes among other things. Other famous foreigners have taken names based on dragons, and other large, ferocious, or intimidatingly masculine symbols. A favorite name is "handsome".

They could, of course, just stick to the phonetic rendering of their names in Chinese, but that would just be boring, would it?

As for myself, I chose a Chinese name purposefully that had a poetic assonance to it, as well as containing only characters related to nature: Bai (the cypress tree), Hai (the sea), and Feng (the mountain peak). This too is a whimsical name to choose, I suppose, as I am surrounded by little but smog, traffic jams, and epic skyscrapers.

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