What's up with Chinese people having English names?

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April 27 2009 6:04 PM

The Name's Du Xiao Hua, But Call Me Steve

What's up with Chinese people having English names?

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Taking English names also fits with various traditional Chinese naming practices. In the past, children were given "milk names" when they were born, and then public names once they started school. Professionals and scholars used pseudonyms, or hao, that signified membership in an educated class. Confucius, born Kong Qiu, sometimes wrote under his zi, or courtesy name, Zhongni. Even now, Chinese sometimes take new names to mark the start of a new job, entry to graduate school, or a marriage, as my coworkers Alpha and Beta did. They subsequently named their son Gamma. (For the record, Alpha is the male.)

For now, English names remain limited to those living in urban areas or with access to education—ask a migrant worker for his English name and you'll get a quizzical look. But as China globalizes, more and more Chinese pass through checkpoints where they'll acquire English names. Since 2001, all primary schools have been required to teach English beginning in the third grade (for big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, lessons start in first grade), and parents regularly choose English names for their children. China now churns out approximately 20 million English speakers each year, and the estimated number of English learners in China is in the hundreds of millions. In fact, there are probably as many Chinese who can read this sentence as Americans.

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In the United States, people tend to view names and identities as absolute things—which explains why I agonized over deciding on an English name—but in China, identities are more amorphous. My friend Sophie flits amongst her Chinese name, English name, MSN screen name, nicknames she uses with her friends, and diminutives that her parents call her. "They're all me," she says. "A name is just a dai hao." Dai hao, or code name, can also refer to a stock's ticker symbol.

I still haven't gotten around to choosing an English name. Maybe my being Chinese-American makes me feel like I already have enough identities, or maybe I've at last outgrown my childhood angst. The other day, I asked my friend Zhengyu, a fellow American in China who also doesn't have an English name, why he had never picked one. "At some point I just stopped caring about it," he said. "I like my name, and I think it would be odd to hear another name identified with me." I have to agree with him. After all these years, I've learned to treat my name like a big nose or a conspicuous birthmark—not my favorite feature, but a part of me all the same.

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