Yesterday an applicant from China came to my office and introduced herself to me as Runxiao ("Moist Dawn"). However, in previous correspondence, she had always referred to herself as Layn (a variant of Lane; other variants of the name Lane are: Laen, Laene, Lain, Laine, Laney, Lanie, Layn, Layne, and Laynne ("living near a lane"; "descendant of Laighean or Luan" in Gaelic) — so say the name books. When I asked her which name she preferred, she said, "You can call me Runxiao."
"But what about Layn?" I asked. "Didn't you used to go by the name Layn?"
"Oh, yes!" she replied cheerfully with a gleaming smile. "When I was in China, I called myself Layn, but now that I'm in America, I call myself Runxiao."
"Isn't that a bit unusual?" I queried. "You call yourself by your English name in China and call yourself by your Chinese name in America?"
"All my friends do that," she answered merrily. "We all take English names in China, but we feel better using our Chinese names in America. Of course, Americans can't pronounce 'Runxiao,' so I tell them just to call me Run. Now I'm Runxiao to my Chinese friends in America, Run to everybody else in America, and Layn to my old associates in China."
This strikes me as completely counterintuitive. However, since the practice is so widespread, there must be some compelling psychological reason for it.
Here are just a few of the Chinese students and friends I know who went by Western names in China or Taiwan, but have switched to Chinese names in America:
Sophie –> Xiaofei
Tess –> Lei (her American graduate school is trying to make her use this, but she prefers to remain Tess)
Shelly –> Xiaolei
David –> Dawei
Mary –> Mali
Löwen –> Li-wen
Peter (not Petra!) –> Li-ching ("Li" to her American friends)
Gianni –> Xiang
Naturally, they had the Chinese names first when they were young (given to them by their parents), but for one reason or another had decided to go by a Western name when they got older.
Given the large flap over North Texas State Representative Betty Brown's complaint about the difficulty of pronouncing Asian names (“Rather than everyone here having to learn Chinese — I understand it’s a rather difficult language — do you think that it would behoove you and your citizens to adopt a name that we could deal with more readily here?”) [see the comment by Lance to this blog], one might think that some of the arrows would be turned in the opposite direction.
Perhaps it is precisely because progressive Americans want Chinese to feel comfortable using their original names that they actually do decide to resurrect them after they come to America. Indeed, I have often encountered situations where a Chinese student comes to America with a Western name he / she has used for many years and feels comfortable with, even proud of, only to be told by a well-meaning American that it sounds "silly" or "odd" for a Chinese to have a Western name.
Nearly all Americans I know who go to China to stay for more than a few months take Chinese names. This is especially true of those who speak one of the Chinese languages. For example, my Chinese name is Mei Weiheng and my brother Denis' name is Mei Danli. When I am in China, I become Mei Weiheng, and nobody calls me Victor Mair there. Similarly, in China Ed Shaughnessy is Xia Hanyi, William Baxter is Bai Yiping, Jerry Norman is Luo Jierui, and so forth. Not only do we take Chinese given (personal) names, we also adopt Chinese surnames, whereas Chinese (whether in China or in the West) maintain their Chinese surname, regardless of whether they go by a Western given (first, personal) name or by a Chinese given name.