Why Chinese Students Don’t Need an English Name

Names can be a tricky thing for an international student. We’ve had some fun exploring how names that are unfamiliar to Americans can be mispronounced and mangled, and we’ve discussed how many international students attempt to preempt this by choosing an English name. Hậu became Nick, Tiantiac chose Tara.

When Chinese student Jialing Huang started her studies in the U.S. in 2012, she introduced herself to her new friends as Catherine. But she wrote in to say that as she begins her second year in the States, she’s trying to return to using her real name. Here’s why Jialing told us wants to stick with her Chinese name, and why she thinks you should too:

I still remember how excited I was when my teacher asked us to give ourselves an English name. To stand out, I refused to name myself “Amy”, “Helen” or “Susan,” which were extremely popular back then. Instead, I called my cousin who is a few years older than me and asked if she knew any “awesome” English names. Then at the age of fifteen I had my first English name, Crystal, which I liked very much for its beautiful meaning and uniqueness.

After Crystal I also had Catherine, Karine and Jacqueline. My friends have had a few English names as well, such as Amanda, Serena and Grace, and a few friends wanted to be creative and name themselves made-up words like Momo or animals like Fish. We all have a strict standard for choosing an English name: Those names should have some special meaning, and they have to sound nice or sound similar to our actual names.

We do not take our English names too seriously though, simply because we seldom use them. It was not until I came to the United States that I actually used my English name. Every time my American friends had trouble pronouncing my Chinese name, I asked them to call me Catherine, and the name soon became the only name by which they recognize me.

However, my friend David told me recently that after calling me Catherine for a whole year, he wanted to refer to me by my actual name. He said, “I never got the whole different name thing … don’t know why people would voluntarily use a different one.” Perhaps most Americans have the same question.

As we have been told, Americans emphasize individualism. Name is a piece of their identity, so no matter how hard their name is to pronounce, they want others to remember their real name, not a fake, easily-pronounced one.

The reason Chinese students often pick an English name is quite understandable – we don’t want to correct people again and again on how they pronounce our name, and we all believe that it helps Americans remember our name. But in fact, using an actual name may be more socially-acceptable – it is a sign of showing our sincerity.

There were many times when someone I met at party or other random social situations asked my name, and I said “Catherine.” They seemed a little surprised and asked again to confirm. “Catherine?” “Yes.” The questioning in their eyes made me feel like I was lying, and being dishonest can never result in a good relationship. Plus, believe me, those who really want to know you would be more than happy to spend time remembering your actual name.

Using an English name does not even necessarily save people’s time to remember and recognize you. I still remember one time when my classmate Andrea and I were trying to talk about another classmate, who is Chinese:

“You know Daniel…” Andrea said.
“I’m sorry. Who is Daniel?” I asked.
“Oh maybe, Ray…”
“Who is Ray?”
“Well the Chinese guy in our class, slim and tall. He changed his English name this semester.” She smiled bitterly.
“Oh Rui!” I finally understood who she was talking about.

Why not just spend more time in teaching others how to pronounce your actual name instead of confusing others with two or more names?

There are so many Chinese people using the same English names because they know fewer English names and thus have fewer choices when they are choosing one for themselves. Take our class for example. There are two Candys and two Cathys in our fifteen-student class and those students using the same names finally have to change their names to avoid confusion.

Don’t get me wrong, just like there are so many Cathys, Davids, and Mikes among Chinese in the United States, there are a lot Weis, Juns, and Mings in China. However, while we are here in another country, why should we choose to become one more Cathy rather than use our Chinese name to keep ourselves special? The pronunciation of our name sounds as good or even better. A Chinese name is just as cool as an English name.

Have you had to change a piece of your identity in another country? Have you ever had to make a tough decision about what parts of your identity to assimilate? Share your story in the comments or using the form below.

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  1. I agree with the writer. I’m an American and I much prefer using my co-workers actual names than invented English ones that seem to imply that Americans are unable to grasp non-English possibilities.

  2. I disagree with the writer.

    1) Not every Chinese changes his/her name all the time. In fact, many Chinese only have one English name for their entire lives. In my case, I was given an English name when I was born. (Why? Do I need to be English to be given with an English name?)

    2) I’d rather have someone call me a name that I can understand easily than try to figure if people are calling me or not. It’s especially critical in a life threatening situation. I can’t image being called in a name that I don’t recognize in the ER.

    3) In Chinese grammar, the last name comes before the first name. It’s just wrong to call the first name first in English while the name is still in Chinese. I’d rather have an English name in the correct order.

    4) The writer is generalizing the Chinese who have English names. It is not respecting the individualism. “Name is a piece of their identity”. People should have the freedom to choose their identity.

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