Young Chinese have a strong sense of self-awareness. They also hope their English names will be cool, like their names online.”
make things easier for others at our own expense,” she said.
English-speaking people usually adhere to a pool of names that may have their origins in the Christian Bible or popular Western mythology, whereas, technically speaking, any Chinese character can be used in a Chinese name.
There are over 80,000 Chinese characters, some 6,500 of which are commonly used in daily speech.
Chinese parents often embed their own tastes and expectations in their children’s names through a careful selection and configuration of the characters.
Such rules do not apply when choosing an English name, however. Rather than choosing something humdrum, Chinese are just as likely to pick something that has a specific meaning for them — such as their favorite foreign sports star or fruit.
Jernigan said most of her clients want a name that is unique and easy to pronounce. They pay far more attention to the meaning than their Western counterparts, who may not even be aware their own name has a Bible-derived or other meaning.
Some of her clients ask for an English name that is similar in meaning or sound to their Chinese name. Others insist on incorporating one or more of the five elements of wood, fire, water, metal and earth — called wuxing in Chinese — to bring good luck.
People also pick up words from pop culture without realizing that Tiger (Woods), Madonna and Cinderella are not considered normal or common in the West.
Some of her clients reject names for the opposite reason.
“There’s a Serena in the TV show ‘ Gossip Girl’, so many girls think the name is too commonly used, but actually it’s not,” said Jernigan.
The desire to stand out from the crowd makes some opt for French, Arabic or even Japanese names.
“You can easily bump into a Chinese person called Eva or Michelle in Shanghai,” said Lu Hong, who works for a fashion buyer. She said she chose the Japanese name Yui because it is simple, feminine and easy to pronounce.
“Young Chinese have a strong sense of self-awareness. They also hope their English names will be cool, like their names online,” said Fang Yongde, an associate professor of intercultural communication at Shanghai International Studies University.
“Choosing an English name is a language game for some,” Zhao said.
She found that Chinese under 30 are fond of Internet slang and are more likely to integrate English words into daily dialogue with their compatriots.
But once they start to interact with foreigners, they are more likely to start thinking about the connotation of their English name, she said.
English names have also become facilitators in the way modern Chinese communicate as they provide an easy way out when people do not know how to address each other.
This was easier back in the day when people would routinely refer to one another as “comrade”, but this practice is rarely seen outside of political circles these days.
“Calling a colleague ‘Mr’ or ‘Miss’, or using their full name, feels too formal and distant, whereas using their given Chinese name can come across as a bit too intimate,” said Ying Yujie, who works for a private equity firm in the city.
“Somehow, I feel that my English name is one step removed from the real me,” said Jia Haihong, who works for an American institution in Shanghai.
“Different forms of address represent different psychological distances between the addresser and the addressee, and they apply to different social situations and needs,” said Qian Xiaofei, a lecturer of linguistics at Shanghai University.
English names can fill this psychological gap because they are foreign and bear no Chinese cultural connotation, he said.
Zhao noted that Chinese people have to learn how to juggle their English and Chinese names.
“Take me, for example. If I were to give foreign scholars my English name, even though it would facilitate our oral conversation, it would not help them to find my academic work, as I use my Chinese name to publish papers.”
But addressing people in their own language has become an international practice to show respect, she said.
“When I was new here in China, I preferred to use people’s English names,” said Nasir. “But since my Chinese has improved, I like to learn their Chinese name to show my sincerity, that I am willing to put an effort into learning their real name.”
Fang Yongde, an associate professor of intercultural communication at Shanghai International Studies University