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Expat's Eye
Expat's Eye
UPDATED: February 23, 2015 NO. 9 FEBRUARY 26, 2015
What's in a Name?
By Ellen Laughton


In 2009, Texas State Representative Betty Brown shocked the world after she suggested that voters with Chinese names should change them to make them "easier for Americans to deal with." Her words were immediately criticized as thinly veiled racism and soon after, she apologized for the offence caused. Six years have passed since then, and while Brown has presumably moved on to bigger and better things outside the world of politics, it seems her battle for renaming Chinese citizens has strangely re-emerged … in China.

When I arrived in Beijing, I presumed my name would be the odd one out. So when the first local I met greeted me with a cheerful "Hi, my name is Jennifer," I was more than a little surprised. It soon became evident that Jennifer was not alone in her anglicized ways. Almost every person I have met in Beijing has given me a translated or otherwise English version of their names by which to call them.

At the peak of my frustration with what seemed to be a subtle patronization of my inability to speak Chinese, I resorted to asking that cringe-worthy question despised by all peculiarly named people: "But what is your real name?" Soon enough, however, the quizzical looks or responses of "that is my real name" stifled my mission.

What is most perplexing about the whole trend is the lack of an obvious logic behind English name selection. For some, a name is chosen for its similarity to the sound or meaning of the original. For others, however, it is as though throwing a dart at a dictionary while blindfolded is an adequate name-picking process. While giving your children strange and androgynous names may be all the rage in America right now, something doesn't feel quite right about calling a fully grown Chinese adult "Secret" or "Fish."

There are a number of reasons why people in other parts of the world change their names. Marriage, for one, leads to countless surname changes every day, though the practice is arguably on the way out. Aspiring celebrities, too, often discard their "plain" names in favor of more memorable ones.

"Cultural assimilation" is another term to describe an important chapter in name-changing history. Throughout the 20th century, the concept of cultural assimilation justified the arbitrary renaming of immigrants and refugees arriving in America as part of the naturalization process. However, by the turn of the century, the obsession with integration had all but disappeared in Western culture. This was partly due to the rather obvious fact that someone's physical appearance was more likely to betray their ethnic background than their name would.

So if name changing for the purpose of cultural assimilation has all but died out in the West, why has it been embraced so strongly in China?

In an interview with Slate magazine, Laurie Duthie, a doctoral student in anthropology at University of California, Los Angeles, suggested that the reason behind China's renaming revolution has more to do with business than it does with culture. Duthie has done extensive research on Chinese business executives working for multinational corporations and said that following Deng Xiaoping's market reforms foreign investment skyrocketed, and so too did the popularity of English names. "If Betty Brown's your boss … I'd want to change my name, too," she said.

Merlin Ge, a Chinese Australian student currently studying in Sydney, said he uses his English name even when talking to friends and family who speak Mandarin as it sounds more casual in conversation. For Ge, English names have a lot to do with popular culture in China. "Western culture is pretty 'in'," Ge said, "and young Chinese people will occasionally sprinkle other English words into daily conversation, like 'in' or 'cool' or even 'game over'."

Whether the incessant use of English names in China has greater ramifications for the plight of multiculturalism is another issue for another day. For now, I am content in believing that the next time I am offered an English name instead of a Chinese one, it will be for reasons other than to racially profile me as a hopelessly monolingual foreigner. A name is just a name in the end. As the saying goes, a rose by any other name smells as sweet, and for the Chinese that smell is sweetest when the name is in English.

The author is an Australian who has worked in China

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