It was a bit of a shock when I first came to China and was asked to name a Chinese child.
In addition to their given names all of the children in my classes had English names apart from one child whose parents weren’t sure what to pick.
Initially I balked at the request.
Not being a Priest or part of any religious heirarchy I didn’t feel worthy of bearing the heavy weight of naming another human being, plus I was scared of the possible ramifications of my choices. What if the child did or didn’t live up to his English name? What if I gave him a tough guy name like Axel and he turned out to be more of a soft and gentle Vincent? Would the parents later hunt me down and demand retribution?
So, I demurred, deferred and avoided, despite being asked repeatedly. Eventually one of my Chinese assistant teachers helpfully pointed out that English names were ‘just for fun,’ frequently changed and without any weight.
Phew. What a relief. With the burden of responsibility lifted I happily provided names for their four year old sweetie along the lines of Clive, David, Jeff and Danny.
Over the past four years I’ve given English ‘just for fun’ names to many including children and adults, male and female. Usually they prefer a list so that ultimately the choice is theirs. I prefer this option too, it just makes sense.
Sometimes the requests are pretty specific along the lines of ‘I want something that’s cool in America, (how would I know?!)’ or ‘I love all things vintage’ and even, ‘I want names beginning with J, T or S because those sound like my Chinese name.’ Those I like even more because they present a challenge and being so specific actually makes it easier to produce a list.When a student or their parents requests a name followed by an airy; ‘oh, just choose what you think is good.’ I sigh on the inside.
Naturally they prefer standard English names, sometimes opting for ones which aren’t so common but it would be interesting to see what they’d make of a list with names like Demarco, Shaniqua, and Aisha.
I have a feeling they’d be rejected.
Which brings me nicely to my next point.
Some Chinese people don’t need any help or advice in choosing a Western name. They’d rather select their own. I’ve met many Brandys, Candys, Cocos and variations of Anne, along with Davids, Kens, Stevens, Bobbys and one or two Sunnys.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that everyone follows the crowd.
Many people go to the extreme by choosing irregular off-beat non-names which no-one else is likely to have thought of or want.
For example, I once had a job interview with a man called Banana. Fruity names such as Cherry, Strawberry and Apple are quite among 7 and 8 year old girls, but a grown man sporting the name Banana is in a different arena entirely.
Other examples of ‘you won’t find anyone else with this name, ha!’ include, Elephant, Lieman, Hairy Bear, Water, Nevoli, Garen, Coffee, Foxy, Weezy, Focus, Seven, Aki and from a guy I was introduced to today, Cigarette.
Why? Why would you do this?
My first thought was ‘and what’s your wife’s name, Nicorette?’
Just when I think I’ve gotten used to the eclectic madness of China something comes around to shake me up. Except with this name it was more like a wallop to the face.
By the way, it also works in reverse. Sometimes Chinese friends will gift us with Chinese names but every foreigner I know has a good Chinese name, nothing along the lines of Hairy Bear.
Mine was given to me a couple of years ago and is Ai Hua which also translates as Love China, something is probably true on the days I don’t have to call someone Cigarette.