Choosing new English names no big deal for Chinese international students

Graphics by Allison Zhang
In Latin classes, students pick Latin names to go by. Ranging from Maximus to Maya to Machiavelli, they’re used throughout high school.

Even Latin teacher Jane Batarseh starts to think of the students using their chosen names.

But these names exist only within the classroom. 

So imagine choosing a new name that might be used for the rest of your life. 

For many Chinese international students, the English names they choose become their new identities.

For most of us, it’s a strange thought. A name is a title; one would think that it shouldn’t be decided lightly. 

However, several Chinese international students had the same response when asked about their English names: “It’s just a name!” 

Junior Crystal Jiang, whose Chinese name is Siyu (江四雨, Sìyǔ), chose her name a year before coming to SCDS, taking inspiration from Krystal, a member of a South Korean girl band called f(x).

“I was going to choose an English name that starts with a C, and I was thinking of Camille or Carmen,” she said. 

“Then I saw Krystal and thought it could work out if I changed the spelling.”

Jiang liked choosing her own name and said it’s interesting to have a name in a different language. 

“Because I’m not American, I can pick whatever name I want – not what my mom wants it to be,” she said.

Senior Kevin Huang (黄柯铨, Kēquán) actually has two English names: Ken and Kevin.

“(Ken) was given to me by one of my American neighbors (in China),” he said. “It’s the name of one of their respected friends.” 

But when he came to America, Huang changed his first name to Kevin for two reasons. 

“The name Ken is a monosyllabic word, (and) every time people call me, it sounds like (they’re) saying, ‘Hey!’” he said. 

Kevin is also closer to his Chinese name, Kequan.

Huang said he will keep going by Kevin after he graduates from high school; he plans to use Kevin as long as he’s in an English-speaking country. 

“I know for certain I will try to stay in the United States (for college and a job) because I am so used to the culture, and I love (it here),” he said. 

“(If) almost everyone here knows me as Kevin, then I don’t see the point of switching my name back to Kequan.”

Junior Howard Yuan (袁浩, Hào) said he also chose his English name because of its similarity to his Chinese name, Hao.

However, not all Chinese students get to choose their English names.

Senior Michelle Li (李师然, Shīrán) said that she was given her English name by her first English teacher in second grade.

“I didn’t care at the beginning because I was a child, and I knew nothing,” she said. 

“I grew to like (Michelle).”

Her story is very similar to how many Americans feel about their names – they don’t love them at first, but there’s not much to be done about it. 

Surprisingly, most of the Chinese students treated their English names nonchalantly. 

But they say that’s because choosing a name is so commonplace in China.

For sophomore Jacqueline Chao (晁怡舒, Yíshū), choosing an English name was simply part of English class in China, just as choosing a Latin name is at Country Day. 

However, Chao had another reason to change her name that she thinks is one of the biggest differences between English and Chinese names – the meanings.

“My first name is a similar pronunciation to the will that people leave when they die or a suicide note (遗书, yíshū),” she said. 

Chao’s parents had named her that because of the cheerful meaning of the characters: happy and comfortable. 

They didn’t realize the resemblance between the name and the word until an elementary-school peer pointed out the similarity – and not in a friendly way.

“When people saw my last name (in China), they just ignored it. And when they said my first name, it was very awkward,” Chao said.

So when she moved to the U.S., Chao decided to stop using her Chinese name altogether.

The meaning of English names is rarely a deciding factor for parents in the U.S., according to Chao.

“(Your) Chinese name is something you’re called for life, so you’d better choose a better meaning name,” Li said.

Jiang agreed with Li. 

“If you want to choose a Chinese name, it has to be meaningful,” she said. 

“People will react to the name.”

In addition to name meaning, the characters of the Chinese language make a huge difference. 

“Chinese people can pick any two words, putting them together to make up a person’s first name,” Huang said. 

“There are about 90,000 words out there, 7,000 of (which) are used daily.”

Huang’s own name is created from two words. “My parents used my mother’s last name as the first word of my first name (柯,Kē), (and) my dad picked the second word of my first name (銓, Quan), meaning justice,” he said.

Like Huang’s, junior Zihao Sui’s name (随子昊, Zǐhào) is also created from two words.

“The Zi in my name means ‘son,’ and the hao part means ‘sun on the sky,’” she said. “The Zi part is the left part of my mom’s last name, and the hao part is similar in structure to my father’s first name.”

Overall, Sui said, her English name doesn’t come close to the meaningfulness and formality of a name gifted at birth. 

Sui went by Sherry at Capital Christian High School, her first American school. 

However, when she transferred to Country Day as a sophomore, she decided to revert back to her Chinese name.

“I got tired of hearing a name that’s not my actual name after one year,” Sui said. 

However, she didn’t get quite the effect she wanted, as Americans are largely incapable of pronouncing Chinese names properly, Sui said.

“It becomes kind of hard to recognize the correct way from all the other ways after a while,” she said. “Many think they have misunderstood me because it’s such an uncommon name.

“At Starbucks, for example, it’s very inconvenient sometimes.”

However, it doesn’t bother her much.

“It bothers me more when people can’t pronounce my name at all,” she said. 

Sophomore Yelin Mao (毛冶林, Yělín) also goes by his original name, and while he accepts that it won’t be pronounced properly, he also doesn’t mind it.

“I like the way people call me in American style,” Mao said.  

“I think it’s a little hard to pronounce my name exactly right for the non-Chinese speakers.”

This is often because Chinese contains a complexity that is difficult for non-speakers to grasp. 

“We have all these different tones, and different tones can mean different things, even though they have the same spelling,” Chao said.

Sophomore Rita Chen (陈星如, Xīngrú) is another victim of mispronunciation.

Although Rita is her English name, there are students and teachers who call her Xingru instead.

According to Chao, however, the pronunciation Chen often hears (“Zing-roo”) is wrong. The correct pronunciation is closer to “Shing-roo.”

Chen, who doesn’t mind the difference in intonation, said that the only problem is when she doesn’t know if she’s being spoken to.

“When (people) say Zing-roo, I don’t know if (they’re) calling me or not,” she said. “I get confused, and it makes me nervous.”

But when the debate between English and Chinese names comes to an end, all the Chinese international students seem to be unanimous on one advantage of using an English name.

It’s just easier.

By Mohini Rye

Print Friendly, PDF & Email