You know what one of the strangest and oddly most stressful parts of my job teaching English in China is?
Having to give English names to new students.
(We always do this for new students – it makes it easier for us to remember and use names, and it encourages an “English Only” atmosphere once inside the classroom).
I mean, there I am, tasked with deciding what I, and many others, will call this person for potentially years to come. Sure, it’s not a legal name, like their parents gave to them, so they can change it anytime they want, and they won’t use it in all facets of their lives, but sheesh! And for all you parents out there, while you might have debated over names for just one or two children at a time, I’ve usually got to come up with twenty or so.
Oh, and did I mention they should be easily pronounceable and spellable?
Why not just let the students decide for themselves? you wonder. Firstly, many of them are too young and don’t have much exposure to English to know any names. And secondly, well…that’s what the rest of this post is about – what happens when Chinese people are left to their own devices to come up with one.
So here’s my list of tips for choosing an English name (all the examples are real, and come from just a handful of classes that I teach at one state-run school here in our city where their regular teachers have allowed them to choose their own names):
Tip 1: Spelling and pronunciation are important.
Remember, if you yourself can’t spell your name correctly, you can’t expect that others will either. We native English speakers look for certain sounding rules for letters when we see a word, so if you misspell your name, we’ll probably say it wrong.
And the odd time, misspelling your name will result in it becoming another word that is not a name, and is in fact quite unflattering.
Being able to say your name is key as well. I’ll close this tip with a cautionary tale I’ve told many others before, about a young boy I used to teach whose English name was Simon. But since he couldn’t properly pronounce the vowel sounds in his name, soon his teachers and friends couldn’t either. And eventually, the spelling of his name was even changed. And trust me, it’s quite a shock for me as a foreigner to look down at my exam paper and see that I will be testing someone named Semen.
Tip 2: Numbers are not names.
I know George Costanza and Victoria Beckham might disagree with me, but numbers (even Seven) are not really names, so please avoid them.
Tip 3: Naming yourself after food is just silly.
I’ve run across a lot of this here, and I’m not sure how it started, but I’m going to blame Gwyneth Paltrow. These names are most often constrained to fruit, although not entirely – I’ve taught several Gingers over the years.
Seriously, I wonder what people would say if I started telling them my Chinese name was 奶酪 (cheese)?
Tip 4: Just because it is a translation of your Chinese name, or part of it, doesn’t make it a good English name.
If my husband were to translate his Chinese name, I’d be calling him something like Forest of Poplars. See? It doesn’t really work.
Tip 5: Animals are cool, just not for your name.
As with the above Fish, this trend is more common in boys. The number of Monkeys, Dragons, and Lions I’ve taught would make your head spin. With girls, I’d say Butterfly has been the most ubiquitous animal name chosen.
Sure, I get that you want to let people know the good qualities you see in yourself. But literally calling yourself these things as a name is a bit too obvious. Better to find a way to show them, rather than just tell them.
Tip 7: Naming yourself after someone famous means you have big shoes to fill.
Some famous names are less conspicuous than others. For instance, I know a guy here whose English name is Carter (after Vince Carter, the basketball player). It’s not as immediately apparent as some others I have run across.
Tip 8: Random nouns are hit and miss as to whether they make acceptable names.
I also used to teach a class with boys named Lamp, Stick, Try, and the infamous boy who called himself Refrigerator. Sigh.
Tip 9: You might want to run a name past a foreigner before you settle on it, because some of our names have less than positive connotations, despite being actual names.
I’m looking at you, all you Candys, LuLus, CoCos, and the one GoGo I know (who is actually a boy, unfortunately).
Tip 10: Anything like the following are just…What the…? No.
My final tip? When in doubt, go with a simple, boring, run-of-the-mill English name from one of your textbooks. I guarantee you no one will stifle laughter or look at you like you’ve lost your mind if you introduce yourself as Sally or Tommy.
But hey…I can’t tell you what to do, right?!