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

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