- Language Tips
So you set out in life with the name your parents give you and make the most of it, since it's going to follow you around wherever you go. For Chinese people, however, all this changes once they start English lessons, and suddenly they are given a Christian name.
My daughter recently came home from her local school full of pride at the new name she had been baptized with by her Chinese English teacher. "Call me Scooter!" she proudly announced. Oh dear, I thought, but didn't let on, since the only Scooter I had ever heard of was a disgraced American politician surnamed Libby. I felt even sorrier for her schoolmates, as they were named after other modes of transport or vegetables: Trike, Motorbike, Carrot and Pumpkin.
"Star", as the English teacher calls herself, deserves credit for her attempt to expand the vocabulary of her charges in such an imaginative way, but it does remind me of the dictum: "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
Once Chinese students learn a little English they often get to choose their own names, often with unfortunate consequences from the point of view of a native English speaker. For instance, I know that Fanny sounds like the Chinese name, Fan Ni. It's an old and reasonably venerable name in English, deriving from the Latin and meaning "from France". But, and I don't know how to put this more delicately, other than quoting from Urban Dictionary, fanny is a "vagina, named after the early 18th-century English erotic novel, Fanny Hill. Later became slang for the posterior in the US".
One of the most popular websites for choosing an English name is 24.encom, where boys may unwittingly choose a name meaning "gao gui de lang" or "Noble Wolf". Now this sounds great to an adolescent teen, but after telling his expat friends he may be disappointed by the reaction. Rare indeed is the individual, German or otherwise, who is given the name Adolph, as it has been synonymous with Hitler and persecution since World War II.
Being named after fruit is cute in Chinese, but in English it sounds daft, while naming oneself after Hollywood heroes such as "Rambo" and "Superman" is likely to cause shock and merriment rather than awe.
Finally, some advice to English learners: Don't always trust your native speaking teachers, either, because they might be having a laugh at your expense, and being called after characters in Lords of the Ring, or body parts, just isn't cool.
On the other hand, there are now a lot of "foreigners" learning Chinese, so to some extent the roles have been reversed and locals now have the opportunity to have a bit of a giggle themselves - though I must say, Chinese are generally more polite and less liable to point out the errors of their international friends' ways.
After settling in Taiwan for a while I was forced to pick a Chinese name for administrative purposes, since officials use characters rather than the alphabet to key in information. Not wanting to be Zhu Ersi Kuateli, which is how my English name would be transcribed in pinyin, a good friend came up with the magnificent name Zhu Yuanxun, after the founder of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.
Upon joining China Daily, I was informed that this was equivalent to calling myself Adolph Hitler, since he was famed for his massacres, too.
So, if absolutely necessary, I am now Zhu Ersi, even if - as another Chinese colleague kindly pointed out - it's a bit of a sissy name for a boy. This I can take, because Jules goes both ways, and is a boy's and a girl's name in English, though not in French, where my mom plucked it.
And there's far worse. A fellow named Mark, for instance, has plumped for Ma Saike, or "mosaic", which sound innocent enough, until it is known that "masaike" commonly refers to the pixilation of private parts in porn films. An American-Spanish guy called Roberto thought Luo Botuo adequately reflected his name in Chinese, but unfortunately this is also means "turnip". Finally, one student of Chinese thought he was really clever when he chose the auspicious characters bi (a common surname) yun (cloud) and tao (big wave). Unfortunately, this sounds like condom when put together.
I think it's about time, in what we often call a globalized world, to call people by their real names, not some "slave name" or convenient handle, because the other party has difficulty pronouncing it. It's called respect.
On the other hand, if you want to call yourself Bambi or Snot, be my guest.