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Tag: names

I’ve written before about the crazy English names people in Taiwan often go by. This year, though, there’s something entirely new for me.

I’ve had students before who often changed their English name, one of whom even went so far as to take a new one every month. However, I hadn’t ever had a student with an ambiguous name until recently.

He told me his name was Sinbad. But then he wrote Simba on his tape. I updated my records. The next week, he gave me his homework book. It said Sinbad. I changed his name back. Then he wrote Simba on his test book. This was odd enough that I pulled him aside after class and asked him what the heck his name was.

He said he wasn’t that picky. Maybe I should see if he answers to Sinclair.

For me, the difficulties in learning Chinese have always been due to society more than linguistic details. Nowhere is this clearer than in the issues surrounding learning Chinese names. Learning to recognize names is an important part of learning any language. In many cases, recognizing which words in a sentence are names is the difference between getting the general gist of the sentence or hearing a confusing jumble.

The problem is that many Taiwanese people have a strong tendency not to use their real names with westerners. Many prefer to use “English” names with their co-workers and friends, too. The reasons for doing so are numerous and varied- it’s clear that it isn’t just for the purpose of communicating with non-Chinese speakers, though many will offer up that excuse. I’ve actually encountered office environments in companies that don’t conduct any business in English, but are still filled with employees who go by “English” names at the office. Even a lot of people who don’t do this will use their Chinese name with their friends and family, but use an English one with the westerners they know.

Unfortunately, since I don’t look Taiwanese at all, Taiwanese people are very unlikely to tell me their real names when exchanging introductions with me. A common experience of mine is to know a person only by an “English” name for months, and then to hear other friends referring to his or her real name. I often don’t realize it’s the same person. Some people that do this have said that it’s because “foreigners are bad with Chinese names”. Well, that’s probably true. It sure is hard to get “good with Chinese names” if nobody’s willing to use them with you. I realize that people can call themselves whatever they please, but I do wish people weren’t so into using “English” names. It’s taken me three years of living here to learn as many names as I learned in a year and a half of studying Japanese.

I do have a few strategies for learning names, though.

  1. When people introduce themselves with English names, always ask what their Chinese names are. Some will refuse to tell you, but others normally go by their real names anyway and will be happy you asked. You never know who might just be trying to help the poor foreigner who doesn’t appear able to remember Chinese names.
  2. When people do introduce themselves with Chinese names, be very careful to remember them. Write down the pinyin and make sure you know how to address them the next time you see them.
  3. Read about history, if you can find an easy kid’s book. However much young Taiwanese people may like to identify with English names, you can be sure that textbooks won’t be calling Sun Zhongshan, “Johnson Sun” anytime soon.
  4. Read about politics. The day Chen Shuibian starts going by “Steven Chen” will be a sad day indeed. Even politicians who do have and use English names are almost never referred to by them in Chinese publications.
  5. Watch mainland movies. Taiwanese movies and Hong Kong movies seem to be filled with people using English names. The mainland movies I’ve seen haven’t been, so far.
  6. Keep going to Chinese class. One good thing about the classes and the books at Shida is that we were all given appropriate Chinese names and we had to learn them. The characters in the books we studied all had Chinese names too. It was a good start towards getting familiarized with the most common names.

Note: I put “English” names in quotes above due to the fact that many of the most common “English” names in Taiwan aren’t even English names at all. Yoyo and Coco are two examples that spring to mind, but I’ve also met an Anterny, a San, a Weelial and a host of other people with odd names. Heck, my old dentist went by Decay. If you’re not sure which names are common, I suggest the Name Voyager. It’s got the most convenient interface of any baby name site I’ve seen. You can check the “English” names above on the voyager and see that none were in the top 1000 names in any decade after 1880. If anyone knows of a similar site for Chinese names, please post the link in a comment!

Even after living in Taiwan for three years, I still find myself amused at Chinese street names. Ham-fistedly translating them word for word into English yields amusing results. Here are some of my favorite Chinese street names:

麗水街lìshuĭjiēBeauty Water Street
和平路hépínglùPeaceful Road
仁愛路rén’àilùHumanity Road
博愛路bóàilùBrotherly Love Road
中山路zhōngshānlùMiddle Mountain Road
建國路jiànguólùEstablish Nation Road
市民大道shìmíndàdàoCity People Boulevard
永康街yŏngkāngjiēEver-Healthy Street

That’s right. In hundreds of years, 永康街 has never gotten a cold… not even once. There’s never a war on 和平路, and you’d better stay the heck off of 市民大道, because it’s just for city people. Amusing street names abound.

One peculiarity about Chinese ESL learners is that they usually want “English” names. Back when I was learning French, I didn’t take to calling myself Jean-marc; when I was learning Japanese, I didn’t call myself Taka. I just used my English name phoneticized into Katakana. I saw no need to change my name to learn a new language. Maybe I’d change the pronunciation, but no more. Most of my foreign friends from back when I was in the states were the same. Try telling my Japanese buddy Tomohiro that he should adopt an English name, like Tom and he’ll tell you he’s Japanese and that Tomo’s his name. The same went for my other friends, Yoshi, Naoki, Tadashi, Tomohiko, and even the notoriously unpronounceable Ryuta.

Chinese people aren’t like that. To suggest to a mother that she just allow her child to be called 專文 (zhuān wén) in my class, is blasphemy. She’ll insist that without a proper “English” name, the chance to “soak American culture” just won’t be the same. I’ve heard this opinion from dozens of parents. Heck, I even saw one kid who didn’t want an English name get in a yelling match with his dad over it. Nearly all the kids want English names, though. Some even want two.

Naturally enough, a lot of the “English” names they pick aren’t very English at all. I don’t think I ever met or heard of a single Coco before I came to Taiwan (though I did know a dog named Cocoa), but I must have taught or met at least 30 Cocos since coming here. The same goes for Kiki, Yoyo, Mimi, and several other popular “English” names here. I’m not really a big fan of these names, since they AREN’T going to familiarize the kids with commonly used English names. But, hey. If it makes them happy, then why not?

There is one kind of “English” name, though, that I can’t stand. It’s the mis-spelt name given by Taiwanese teachers from the public schools. My new students of this type have included an Anterny, a Cynphia, an Avy, a Jesper, a Weever, a San, and a Weanston. The problem with these “English” names, beyond the fact that they aren’t English, is that English speakers (including myself) always think that the kids are mispronouncing real names. I already have a lot of names to remember, and it really sucks trying to remember if Jesper is the one who insists that is name is pronounced as “Jeesper” or if it was Cynphia that insists she’s “Seenvia”. Worse yet, after practicing with each other for a few years, the kids will have the exact same problems with real English names. I don’t really want to be some sort of “cultural imperialist”, but there is a point at which I can’t take the Engrish. I sat the parents down and explained that their kids’ names were the result of letting non-natives with really screwed up phonics try to remember real names. At first they were incredulous. “Are you sure Weanston’s not a popular English name?” Fortunately, by the end, I got Cynphia to become Cynthia, Avy to become Amy, Jesper to become Jasper, Weever to become Webber, San to become Sam, and Weanston to become Winston. Anterny isn’t budging, though.

There are tons of ways to try to absorb American culture. Aside from Hollywood, there’s great access to US video games, children’s stories, American restaurants, American music… the list goes on. I’m not sure if picking an “English” name will help students assimilate any more of the culture or not, but I’m positive picking a name like “Weanston” won’t.