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?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Texas state Rep. Betty Brown suggested recently that Asian-Americans should change their names because they're too difficult to pronounce. During public testimony for a voter-ID bill, she asked political activist Ramey Ko (who happens to be my cousin) why Chinese people don't adopt names for "identification purposes" that would be "easier for Americans to deal with." I know I should denounce Brown's coded use of "American" and point out that Ramey and Ko are both easier to handle than, say, Zbigniew and Brzezinski. But, mainly, I'm struck by how dramatically Brown misjudged her audience. If she wants to peddle her renaming plan, she should do it in China.

When I moved to Shanghai about a year ago, I figured my name would finally seem "normal." No longer would it be the albatross of my childhood in Utah—making me stand out among the Johns, Steves, and Jordans. But when I introduced myself, I was met with blank stares, double takes, and requests for my English name. People—Chinese people—often wondered whether I were being patronizing, like the fabled Frenchman who icily responds in English to an earnest American's attempts to get directions en français. My company almost didn't process my paperwork because I left the box for "English name" blank. "You don't have an English name?" the HR woman gasped. "You should really pick one." She then waited for me to do just that, as if I could make such an important existential decision on the spot; I told her I'd get back to her. People—Chinese people—had trouble recalling my name. One guy at work, a Shanghai-born VP, called me "Steve" for almost three months. At my workplace, which is 90 percent mainland Chinese, just about everyone I interacted with had an English name, usually selected or received in school. The names ran the gamut, from the standard (Jackie, Ivy) to the unusual (Sniper, King Kong), but what really struck me was how commonly people used them when addressing one another, even when the rest of the conversation was in Chinese.

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To sort out how English names became necessities in China, I recently spent an afternoon with Laurie Duthie, a UCLA doctoral candidate in anthropology who's finishing up her dissertation in Shanghai. Duthie has studied Chinese white-collar workers since 1997 and traces the popularity of English names in China back to the influx of foreign investment following Deng Xiaoping's market reforms. With foreign investment came foreigners, and many of Duthie's research participants told her that they got tired of outsiders butchering their Chinese names, so they adopted English ones. "If Betty Brown's your boss, or if your boss can't say Du Xiao Hua, I'd want to change my name, too," says Duthie.

Increasingly, these bosses are Chinese, yet the English names persist, in part because English tends to be the lingua franca for business technology, and even native Chinese often find it more efficient to type, write, or sign documents in English. Using English names also creates a more egalitarian atmosphere. Most forms of address in China reinforce pecking orders, such as "Third Uncle" and "Second Daughter" at home or "Old Wang" or "Little Hu" in the village square. Your given name—customarily said in full, surname first—is reserved for use by those with equal or higher social standing, and the default honorific for an elder or superior is "Teacher"—no surprise in a country that reveres education. But an English name, other than separating those with and without such names, frees users from these cultural hierarchies.

Given the nationalism I've witnessed in China, I was a bit surprised at how readily Chinese adopted Western names. (Even my Americanized parents were uncomfortable with the idea of me changing my name. They said I could do as I wished when I turned 18, though always in a tone that suggested such an unfilial act would cause them to die of disappointment.) But Duthie's participants insisted that taking an English name isn't kowtowing, nor is it simply utilitarian. Rather, it's essential to being Chinese and achieving Chinese goals. Whereas in the past patriotism was expressed by self-sacrifice, it is now expressed through economic activity. So by working for, say, 3M, Chinese citizens are helping to build up China, and the English names they take on in the process are as patriotic as Cultural Revolution-era monikers like Ai Guo (Loves China) or Wei Dong (Mao's Protector).

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.

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.

Huan Hsu lives in New York. His first book, The Porcelain Thief, will be published by Crown/Random House next year.

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