Give Him a Good Name

Matt | Picking English Names | Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Being an English teacher in China gives you some great opportunities – to meet interesting people, to get treated like a treasured object for being a teacher, to hear your students’ laugh when you speak in Chinese – but one of the best and oddest responsibilities is that once in a while a student will ask you to give them an English name.

When I was first asked to do this I remember being nervous and I felt a little odd giving this student a name they may keep for the rest of their life.

Later on, while I was teaching business English in a bank, I met the group I’d be teaching and I met their boss.  He was a serious looking man, who didn’t speak much English.  His role was simply to approve of the teacher, but he wouldn’t attend the class because I think he didn’t want to lose face in front of his subordinates.  So when I met him, shook his hand, accepted his business card and heard him say his name, I wasn’t quite sure if I heard him right, but his name was…. Cheryl. I didn’t have the heart to tell him he had a girl’s name.  Nor did I have a chance later on, unfortunately.

But I learned that giving a name to someone is a big responsibility.

Since then I’ve given lots of people English names. I try to give names that 1) I like, 2) that I think sound good with their full names, and 3) that seem to suit the individual.  Also I try to stay away from such common names: Johnny and Jenny if possible.  I’m not sure if it’s because I miss my family or not, but I’ve named many students after my family: Hayley (x3), Jason (x2), Pat x1, Sam x1.  I may have named more than this, but this is all I can remember at this time.

The first question my no-name student will usually ask is:

“So what does Hayley mean?”

Because in Chinese all names, all characters, have a strong meaning.  So if the parents name their child “Emperor” then they expect big things from their kid.

So, when I explain that English names don’t really have meaning, that we simply pick a name we like or that sounds good they can’t understand.

Sometimes, students will pick their own names and you’ll get some interesting ones: Caesar (Emperor ideas?!), Qiao (likes to leave), Lebron, Sorcer (“I dropped the Y from sorcery”) and my favourite so far is definitely Dinosaur.

I will often try to persuade the students, with unique names, to change their name to something more mainstream.  On the one hand, I’m glad they pick a name they like.  On the other hand, I fear what people will think of them when they start work and he introduces himself as Dinosaur.

The last time I did tried to convince a student to change his name from Sorcer, he stubbornly said, “Why can’t I have this name?”  I said you can.  And I understand the importance in having a unique name, only I don’t want people to laugh at you.  But he didn’t understand.  So I said, what if my Chinese name was, “Gou Bu Li”, which literally means “Dog won’t even eat”.  This is a famous food here in China, it would be like someone being called a “Big Mac”.  He laughed.  Then he understood the reaction someone would get with an oddly-unique name.  So we settled on him thinking over: Ethan and Nathan.  It’s his name, so it’s his choice.

I also reminded him that, the good thing about English names is that if you don’t like your name, you can always change it. I do think it’s a good idea to have a name, as I think it shows you are interested in learning about the language and culture.

If you are ever stuck on helping your students pick an English name, here is a good site I found that actually does have English names with their meanings. So Hayley actually means “Heroine”, that’s pretty good,  Matthew means “Gift of the Lord” spot on there, Karena/Carena means “Pure One”.  These sound pretty good.

Remember to give your student a good name.  They’ll hopefully give you a good Chinese name too.

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