Sino-American Name Reversion

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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:

China/TW   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.


  1. Shane said,

    August 29, 2009 @ 11:02 pm

    That is fascinating. Most of my American-born Chinese friends (myself included) have Western first names, as do most of our immigrant parents and their friends. We're talking maybe 90-95% Western names in a sample of around 200-300 American-born Chinese people and about 100-200 Chinese immigrants. However, my anecdotal sample is limited almost exclusively to immigrants from Taiwan or Hong Kong during the 70's plus their children – in a specific geographical area.

    I'd be interested in seeing data on what percentage of Chinese-speaking immigrants come over with Western or Chinese first names, and how this trend has changed over time. Perhaps it can even be traced to cultural changes in Chinese-speaking countries – I know my parents, aunts, and uncles were given western names as young children, long before they immigrated in their 20's.

  2. Vincent said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 12:00 am

    I'd venture that personal names instruct groups of people about the level of familiarity they should presume with someone, and with one another when those groups intermingle. Using different names in different contexts can help establish boundaries between the familiar and the unfamiliar.

  3. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 12:02 am

    As you can well imagine, my surname causes no end of trouble even for native English-speakers. In the USA, the most common reaction from Chinese people upon discovering that I've chosen a Chinese surname[*] is amusement; in China, it was relief.

    Offhand, I can think of a sole exception to the rule of Chinese retaining their original surnames upon coming to the US. Once when interviewing for a job in Silicon Valley, I was bemused to find that the "Mr Stone" on my list of people to talk to was 100% ethnic Chinese. His immigrant father had anglicised their surname from 石.

    [*] 橋, a straightforward translation of the element Brig (from Low Saxon Brüg(ge) "bridge").

  4. Chris said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 12:48 am

    So, why do you and other Americans in China end up adopting Chinese names? Sounds like Chinese people are comfortable with western names — does it just help with bureaucracy or something?

  5. GAC said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 1:28 am

    You've brought up American's difficulty pronouncing Chinese names, but I wonder if writing is more important. It's fairly trivial to transliterate a Chinese name into pinyin or some other system and use it verbatim. However, transliterating an English name into Chinese characters isn't as easy.

    So, do you use your Chinese name for official purposes in China? I understand that formal Chinese writing generally avoids foreign characters, in which case I would much prefer giving a made-up Chinese name than a long, difficult-to-remember transliteration.

  6. Daniel von Brighoff said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 1:30 am

    The Chinese are comfortable with certain kinds of Western names (of which "Mair" would seem to be a rather good example, actually). Mine is not one of those names and never will be. Any reasonable Chinese approximation would have twice the number of syllables. I'd rather give them something they can readily pronounce and write–and, judging by their reactions when I was over there, they would just as soon I did that, too.

    It's not just Chinese, by the way. The Koreans are comfortable with Western names as well. Yet when I tell them my Korean name (which is simply a Korean reading of my Chinese name), they invariably prefer to address me with that even when they insist I use their Western names!

  7. Alex said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 1:54 am

    It seems that having a Western name means different things to these students at home and abroad.

    My first guess would be that in China these students use Western names to set themselves apart as worldly and experienced; abroad, they try to cultivate a sense of belonging and togetherness among themselves, and use their given names more.

    As someone who often deals with foreign graduate students as research volunteers, I find that many of them are very timid and taciturn in face-to-face interaction with an English-speaking stranger. Maybe they feel out of place insisting on Western names in these situations.

  8. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 1:56 am

    Allow me to go on thin ice by suggesting this is merely the fascination with foreign language that is found with not only Chinese and Japanese names and writing, but also with various other languages (e.g. English across the board, to a much lesser extent, Italian, Spanish, Arabic or French). Isn't this sort of "foreign is better" mentality what gave us the heavy metal umlaut?

  9. Steve Cotler said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 3:39 am

    Pronunciation and meaning can play a part as well in crossing from West to East (or vice versa). My name is pronounced in America as it reads: COT-ler. But in Japan it is almost always pronounced KOE-toe-rah, not KAH-toe-rah. I have been told that it is because KOE-toe-rah is a "good name. It means small tiger. But that KAH-toe-rah could translate as striped mosquito, which in Asia is a carrier of dengue fever!

  10. John Cowan said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 3:40 am

    Chinese names have characters that represent them, and they are familiar. There are only perhaps 800 Han surnames in all China, all but 100 or so of which are vanishingly rare; it's said that 20 surnames cover the majority of all Han.

  11. Ellen Georges said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 4:42 am

    This makes perfect sense to me. Many Chinese people like to have a Western name when they are in China, it's cool and fashionale. This does not happen in Japan, however. For some reason, Japanese young people stick with their nihongo names: Yumiko, Tomoko, Hideo, etc. But come to China or Hong Kong or Taiwan or Singapore, and many, not all, but many young people like to adopt a Western name like Marlboro, Seven, Hester, Layne, David, Jordan, Michael, seldom Victor.

    But when Layne came to the USA story study, it makes sense that she wants to re-assert her Chinese-ness and to stand up for communist China, so she decided to go back to her given Chinese name as a sign of personal pride. Makes sense. When I loved in France, I called myself "Marie-Ellen" just for fun, but now that I am back in NYC I go by Ellen. Capice?

  12. Proinsias Ó Raghallaigh said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    Just drawing from my own experience of travelling and being abroad in general: I'm Irish and have always felt "more" Irish when abroad, proud of my name and culture/language. I'd hardly even think about my nationality when I'm at home. Being abroad, for me, seems to force that national/cultural aspect of my identity more to the surface.

    Maybe something similar is happening here in terms of the Chinese names – for purely practical reasons a Western name might help most Westerners understand their name and that might be used in certain situations, but when in an ex-pat Chinese community, that same psychological motive would make one more proud of one's home cultural name?

  13. David Eddyshaw said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 6:33 am

    I recall reading an account of this phenomenon by (I think) Yuen Ren Chao, that it is not polite, traditionally, in Chinese to address a person by their personal name, unless one is a parent or in a similar position of authority or a very intimate friend, and that Chinese people therefore often choose a name by which it is appropriate for friends to address them.

    When interacting with foreigners, Chinese people would choose a Western personal name for convenience, even if not themselves baptised Christians (for example.)

    However, the usual Westerner's rendition of a Chinese personal name sounds so different from the true pronunciation that it can be used in English contexts like a courtesy name.

    (I've just tracked down something about this on pp517-518 of his "Grammar of Spoken Chinese")

    I know nothing about this myself, unlike all you Chinese speakers – is there anything in this?

  14. oohkuchi said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 8:59 am

    You have to take a Chinese name in China, because older people cannot say or recognise non-Chinese names unless they are written in characters. And as the phonetic system of Chinese cannot accommodate many foreign sounds (eg doubled consonants) your name has to be sinicised. I wasn't crazy about this, but it is a practical necessity. By the same token, when I taught there, I was not crazy about giving my students English names, but it too was a necessity as at that time I could not pronounce Chinese. A Chinese name like Ci Qixiao or Qu Zhicun is almost unsayable without a degree in Mandarin–you cannot bluff it, either in speaking or listening. It's a real problem. I don't think there is any other culture in the world that is so completely sealed off by its language.

  15. ø said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 9:21 am

    @Jean-Sébastien Girard:

    this is merely the fascination with foreign language … sort of "foreign is better" mentality

    It seems to me that fascination with what is foreign covers a lot of territory, much more than "foreign is better", and is not easily dismissed with a mere "merely".

  16. JP Villanueva said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 9:40 am

    At a Mandarin meetup in Seattle I was given the name 万吉平, by the only time I ever went by that was during a 6 week summer intensive in Hangzhou. The rest of my 2 years in China, I was addressed exclusively as JP, even by people who liked my Chinese name.

    In Shanghai, there were two Davids in our office, one a Canadian, the other was 徐洲, our Chinese sound engineer who had chosen David as his English name. The Latinos and I in the office started calling our sound engineer "Davidico" to distinguish the two, and because frankly, we liked Davidico better.

    About a year ago, Davidico and his wife Daisy had a son, and of course a lot of thought went into the Chinese name… in fact they went back and forth for a while with the grandparents. The English name, however, seemed to be settled much earlier in the process… probably because the grandparents didn't care so much. Anyway, the English named they settled on: "Miguelito."

  17. Spell Me Jeff said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 10:08 am

    My English department office is directly across from my college's International Center, so I have 17+ years' daily interaction with students from other lands, and particularly East Asia. As mentioned above, the Japanese never take Anglo names. Perhaps there are cultural reasons, but I've always assumed it was because it is very easy to approximate Japanese pronunciation based on the spelling.

    Virtually without exception, the Chinese students do take an Anglo name, and they do so in the more intuitive pattern mentioned by Victor Mair: that is, when in class or speaking with friends, they use the Anglo name. There is no back-sliding.

    I was interested to note that VM's examples illustrate a trend to rough approximation (e.g., Sophie –> Xiaofei). The names I have observed the Chinese adopting show no correspondence of any kind. (They seem to choose names that please them.) If it matters, these students are largely from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

    FWIW, I also get a lot of Pacific Islanders in my classes (typically Samoans and Tongans). Most, but not all, play football. Of those whose records indicate a traditional given name, I notice this pattern: The greater the number of syllables/apostrophes, the more likely the student is to have adopted a Western nickname, such as "T." I have the sense this has been done out of deference to the football culture rather than the culture at large.

  18. James in Beijing said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 10:19 am

    I live in Beijing and have always found it interesting that my Chinese colleagues almost always use their English names amongst themselves, even when speaking Chinese. In addition to this, when talking about me, or with me, they never use my Chinese name. I think the reason for the switch when they go to the US or another Western country is that their English name is no longer special or distinctive, whereas their Chinese name is.

    The other interesting thing is the preponderance of odd names among the Chinese. I don't know where they get these names, but I have seen names like Cola, Whistle and Kodak that I am pretty sure the bearers think are common English names.

  19. hsknotes said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 10:45 am

    James in Beijing,

    The bearers of "extraordinary English names" certainly don't think their names are common English names. The idea of caring about what is a common English name never crosses the mind of many. They are names used amongst themselves and are best not understood in the context of the English-speaking world. More often than not the bearers of these names will never in any context come into contact with someone who is a native speaker of English. Nicknames and and naming conventions differ across these two cultural areas and while someone from the West might think it best to preserve one's original name or pick a common name from the foreign language one speaks, that expectation possibly only comes from the recognition that one is actually likely to use that language and name with an actual native speaker of the foreign language.

    Not that many international lawyers in Shanghai going by the name Snoop Dogg (more like Dan), but some high school kids might.

    Not that anyone cares, but I personally don't prefer the call center worker in India informing me his name is Ralph, when I know it probably isn't.

    The America I know is a place that asks many, many people how want their last and often first name pronounced, regardless of whether it is deemed "english" or not. I think that's where you get the split with some younger people in china using english names and then using chinese names in america. Maybe America was a place that made people "fix" "foreign-sounding/looking names" in the past, but that certainly doesn't seem to be the trend. I think the Chinese grad student in America sees the other international students who haven't taken english names and perhaps feel more comfortable also retaining a name. I mean, the president is name Barack, not Barry these days, so maybe Xiaofei doesn't feel like she has to be Sofie.

  20. kyrasantae said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 10:46 am

    My mother is a Chinese who grew up in British-controlled Hong Kong, and everybody (at her school, at least) was asked to choose a Western name in high school English class. I guess it just seemed more appropriate back in those days (1970s) to use Western names in English conversation practice. So when she immigrated to Canada, it was easy to simply adopt the Western name legally. Nowadays it's only her family that calls her by her Chinese name, and even her old friends from college (in HK) use her Western name.

    Hong Kong people in general still think that having a Western name is important, but what makes them choose weird names (and it really is remarkable how many Hong Kongers who have the weird names like Kodak or Benz or Placenta (!)) is, in my opinion, a matter of what words sound nice to them or associate good things for them. I don't think it's an assumption that they're common names at all.

    Randall from has a list of interesting Western names he's encountered in Hong Kong:

  21. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    I was surprised to learn about the habit of using one's Chinese name in America. I've lived most of my adult life in Vancouver and Toronto, and met many people whose first language is a Chinese language. Most of the time, an individual who has both a Chinese name and an English name will use their English name with me. However, maybe it's mostly because they assume (probably correctly) that I'll have trouble with their Chinese name — I'm very white with red hair and a thoroughly North American accent.

  22. Jongseong Park said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 11:46 am

    This is an interesting phenomenon. My own experiences as an expatriate Korean are perhaps closer to what people would expect.

    I have both a Korean name and an English name, and in real life I use my Korean name among Koreans and the English name among non-Koreans. I wouldn't necessarily object to a Korean calling me by my English name, but I still would find it weird.

    My parents gave me the English name when I was born; I don't think I would have adopted an English name for myself had that not happened. Still, I know plenty of Koreans who adopt English or other foreign names when they study or work overseas. Since these foreign names are chosen for the benefit of non-Koreans who have trouble remembering or pronouncing the Korean names, they are used exclusively in dealing with non-Koreans, i.e. in school or work, and almost never in all-Korean settings. Even close acquaintances may not know each others' foreign names.

    I've had several conversations with Koreans looking to adopt foreign names and soliciting suggestions, but one never hears how they are resolved. I think such talk in most cases remains just talk.

    My observations are based on Koreans living overseas, but in Korea itself, there are a number of Korean entertainers (idol singers and the like) and one prominent fashion designer who use non-Korean (primarily Western) names. Who knows if this might catch on…

  23. Aaron Davies said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    I have two very good friends who are children of Taiwanese immigrants. (One's parents are, ethnically, “Formosans”, i.e. pre-’49 Taiwanese; the other’s are, ethnically, mainlanders (Han, I suppose), if anyone cares.) One has, AFAIK, only an English name (as does her brother, again AFAIK); the other has an English first name and a Chinese middle name (or possibly the other way around): he goes by his Chinese name, while his brother, who was named in similar fashion, goes by his English name.

  24. Aviatrix said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 1:17 pm

    I wonder if there's any need by Chinese people in the USA to be recognized as Chinese in e-mail or on paper. I'm a female with an androgynous first name in a male-dominated profession. I now include my feminine middle name on resumes to avoid being called to another interview by someone who is not prepared to consider a female candidate. Perhaps you don't need to see the "oh, you're Chinese" look on someone's face more than once before you want to make sure that doesn't happen again.

  25. Julia Hockenmaier said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    When I enrolled at Nanjing University as a foreign language student in 1995, we all had to have an official Chinese name from day one. This was easy for the Japanese and Korean students, but all other students had to make up something. While the names of foreign politicians would get transliterated in the news, we typically chose something that was close to our original names, but still resembled a Chinese name in form (so most of our names were two or three characters long). Mine is Yu Liya – so technically, my Chinese surname is 'Yu'.

    Most of us already had a Chinese name (asking a Chinese friend to give you a name is often seen as an honor). But a friend of mine, who as a postdoc in chemistry was subject to the same rule, spoke very little Chinese at the beginning of the academic year, and was completely stumped by this. So he made his name up on the spot by choosing words in the dictionary that sort of sounded like his name; but because he choose actual words in the dictionary instead of characters that are commonly used in transliterations, the result was rather comical.

  26. Rubrick said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    At least she isn't using the translation of her Chinese name as her Anglicized name. I mean, you know, "moist".

  27. bianca steele said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 2:15 pm

    My evidence, over almost twenty years, is entirely anecdotal. About fifteen years, ago, those from the mainland or from top Taiwan universities used their Chinese names. Everybody else took English names. This was independent of whether they were Christians. More recently, I've known very young university graduates living in Shenzhen who gave on English names–until a coworker recently emigrated from Southern Central Europe insisted that he felt using their "own" names was more polite. I had tried but was told that it was too difficult for me to learn to pronounce the Chinese names.

  28. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 3:52 pm

    Just to add more (pointless?) anecdotal evidence to the thread, in my experience old-style Japanese immigrants in Brazil, and their children, often have names of the form [Japanese name] [Portuguese name] [Japanese family name], without any relationship (semantic or phonetic) between the Japanese and Portuguese versions — e.g. Akemi Denise Sameshima or Yuri Vanessa Ohara. Between themselves, and when they go to Japan, they ignore the Portuguese name. In mainstream Brazilian society they mostly use it.

    The trend is now for Japanese names throughly, with many of the younger generations not using their Portuguese names, or not having one at all. This may or may not coincide with the fashion for pop Japanese culture or (more likely) with the fall of race prejudice.

  29. language hat said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    So, why do you and other Americans in China end up adopting Chinese names?

    When I was in Taiwan (30 years ago), it was a practical necessity; you needed a "chop" (name stamp) to transact any kind of business, like cashing your paycheck, and that required a Chinese name. I was Dai Shide (Tai Shih-te), and I can still sort of write the characters (though I wish they hadn't chosen such a complicated family name to represent Dodson).

  30. Rob said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 4:17 pm

    I'm not sure how significant the following explanation is, but it does seem that the population of Chinese/Asian immigrants to the West that we are discussing are students. As an assistant professor who has taught many international students, I hold to a policy of using students' Chinese names for the very practical matter of printing class rosters and submitting grades. It is just easier for me to deal with their official names rather than attempt to remember their Western names as well. This may have a slight influence on which names the students use in other contexts.

  31. Jongseong Park said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    I think Rob's point is a good one.

    In more complicated cases, names that appear on official documents in different countries may not be the same. Korean documents have no space for anything other than the Korean surname and the Korean given name; in English-language documents you can at least use one of the given names as a middle name. I ran into trouble once during a school trip because the school had bought plane tickets using the names on the official roster, and mine wasn't the same as the one on my Korean travel document.

    Having two unrelated given names, appearing in various permutations on official documents, has caused me much headache over the years. I fully understand how someone studying or working overseas and having to deal with foreign bureaucracy might stick to one's official name, even if back home one went by a Western name.

  32. LHC said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 9:12 pm

    This is about naming pragmatics. In China (including HK and Taiwan, there is a widespread, historically deep aversion to using "given names" (mingzi) with anyone but the closest friends and relations. Instead, people uses either the full name with surname (especially of 2-character names), or many other nicknames and forms of address. In this context, the English name (associated with early schooldays) suggests a kind of affectionate closeness, like old classmates, without really requiring that you let somebody use either your "given name" -or- your earlier, family nicknames. The practice began in HK decades ago, and was only recently picked up in the mainland.

    In America, on the other hand, we use original, given names with basically everyone, and nicknames only with the closest friends. By using "Chinese names" (mingzi), people are adjusting to/ dabbling in American naming practices.

    For instance, I knew my boyfriend for more than a year and always called him (as all our friends did) "Old (surname)", while others called him "(surname) Boss", etc, "(surname) Brother", etc.. I only learned his first name after we started dating. His very best friends from the same hometown address him by his childhood nickname, a variation of his given name-the same one that his older relatives called him. But when referring to him (to those who are not authorized to use his first name) I (and they) would still call him "Old (surname)". To me, it is strange to hear Westerners he has just met call him by his name, it seems very private! Luckily, he doesn't like how Americans mispronounce his name, so he uses an English one more often.

  33. john riemann soong said,

    August 30, 2009 @ 10:39 pm

    It seems very simple to me. (I actually can actually see myself doing this practice, though I've not yet done it.) It's the same reason why English people think a song in French sounds more sophisticated than a song with the same content in English; and why English is the New French for French people. Having a Western name in China makes you sophisticated and distinctive; having an aesthetic Chinese name in the West also makes you sophisticated and distinctive.

  34. dr pepper said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 1:59 am

    Seems to me that in any environment where you get to, or have to, pick a new name, you might as well choose something that sounds good to you or has some significance. Like here online, for instance. When i started bbsing, Dr Pepper was the undisputed national drink of gamers and late night computer geeks. So when people saw my handle they had some idea of what i was into. Of course that was before "energy" drinks. I would certainly never use a name i couldn't identify with. So if i ever went to a place where i needed a language specific name, i certainly wouldn't ask someone to just give me one. Maybe i'd just find a local drink i liked.

  35. bocaj said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 3:44 am

    I think there's a few things going on here that haven't been fully addressed.

    First, most young (>35 years-old) Chinese people studied English throughout primary and secondary school with perhaps even a year or two of English classes in their undergraduate studies. Like most foreign language classes in the U.S., students take the equivalent of their name in the target language or choose a common name from that language. For example, I was Jacques in French, Jacobo in Spanish, Kuba in Czech, Jakobo in Swahilli, and for the past 9 years I've been 杰克. However, as anyone who's worked or lived in China will tell you, people here sometimes take (or create) names that do not exactly adhere to normal English naming conventions; we've all met a Jecky, Vincy, Apple, Pinky, or Hitler.

    As someone mentioned above, Chinese do not usually address people by their given name. 老 lao old, 小 xiao small, and 阿 A an honorific used in Guangdong a lot, are much more common. However, I think what's perhaps is more important is the traditional usage of titles in the workplace. At work it is much more common to address senior staff or your superior by the family name and title, e.g. 王总 or 王主任 or 王经理 处长 院长 局长 etc. Many multinational corporations try to counter this practice – and probably the corporate mindset it accompanies – by requiring everyone to use an English name. The theory being that employees calling the boss 'Jerry' instead of 'Boss Wang' or 'Director Wang' will help create a corporate culture that is less rigid or hierarchical than is typical of Chinese companies.

    Recent immigrants forgoing their English name for their Chinese name, transliterated, is perhaps because of cultural pride. I remember a few years ago when Zhang Ziyi first became popular, she was interviewed by a mainland reporter and when asked why she hadn't chosen an English name she replied rather curtly that if people couldn't remember or say her name it was their problem not hers.

  36. J. W. Brewer said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 11:11 am

    Some years ago I worked on a matter where I had occasion to look at various sorts of English-language formal business documents signed by ethnically-Chinese persons, mostly (if memory serves) from Singapore (but maybe also HK — memory really is vague here but I think the matter had a nexus to both of those jurisdictions). Many of them had both "English" and "Chinese" given names, and used both of them simultaneously in their formal-for-legal-purposes name, to judge from the signature lines on the documents (at least what was typed — can't recall what the handwritten scrawl above it was or even whether it was in Roman letters). However, disambiguation was achieved by respecting the different word order conventions and often putting the family name in ALL CAPS for clarity. So if Sun Yat-Sen had been involved in these business transactions in Singapore in the late '90's and had acquired "Kevin" as his Western-style name, his signature line would have been typed as "Kevin SUN Yat-Sen."

    There's a story in today's N.Y. Post about distinguished NYC resident Wellington Chen (born in Taiwan) which talks about how he acquired his "English" first name but also ascribes significance to both the literal and supposed symbolic meaning of his original Chinese first name – but without actually saying what that name was in Chinese.

  37. Mary Kuhner said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 1:50 pm

    My Asian students at the University of Washington are all over the place, including one who carefully wrote out "Chinese-given-name (Western-given-name) Chinese-family -name" on every page of a ten-page exam. That's also her official name of registration, leaving me completely unclear what she would like to be called. I make a stab at her Chinese name but there's no telling whether it's better to make an effort and risk mispronunciation or to stick with the Western name and risk sounding parochial.

    My Chinese visiting student, Yi Wang, went back and forth with me on this and eventually we decided that I would call him Wang Yi; but we never reached a similar consensus on what he would call me. His default was "Dr. Mary" but I always found this odd. When I complained that Western names aren't really complicated, he grumpily showed me two published papers, on one of which, as first author, I am "Kuhner, Mary" and on the other, as second author, "Mary Kuhner." "If you can't get this straight, how should I?"

    I should have asked him for a Chinese name, though he has a streak of mischief and might have picked a funny one.

  38. PLT said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 2:34 pm

    I am an instructor of English as a second language at a university in the U.S., and I work almost exclusively with students from East Asia. On the first day of class I always ask them what name they prefer to be called in class and abide by what they tell me, whether they designate their Chinese (or Korean, or etc.) given name, a "Western" first name, a nickname, or a surname.

    When I was living in Europe, I always introduced myself using the local language's pronunciation of my name because my first and last name exist in the local language. It always rankled me when people nevertheless insisted on attempting an American English pronunciation of my name. I would rather be called by the local language's version of my name than by a slightly mangled "American" pronunciation of my name. I also liked using a local pronunciation of my name because it provided me the sense of having an alter ego–it seemed analogous to putting on different cultural hats in different situations.

    My overall point is that I find it patronizing to call people by any name other than the name by which they have asked to be called.

  39. john riemann soong said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 3:49 pm

    "My Asian students at the University of Washington are all over the place, including one who carefully wrote out "Chinese-given-name (Western-given-name) Chinese-family -name" on every page of a ten-page exam."

    Interesting. Usually in a combined name, the family name goes in the middle, because that way you can combine two customs into one! The family name can come after the Western given name and before the Chinese given name!

  40. mollymooly said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

    Like most foreign language classes in the U.S., students take the equivalent of their name in the target language or choose a common name from that language.

    In my experience in Ireland, the only language for which this is done is Irish (when you start school aged 4). I don't know how this practice is being affected by Ireland's increased immigration and Britneyfication, which both mean many children now have names with no Gaelic equivalent.

  41. Matt said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 9:17 pm

    One group of Japanese people that does occasionally adopt an Anglicized name is male adult professionals who interacted with the English-speaking world a lot during the bubble years. Since these names are usually just contractions or riffs on their real given names (Joichi -> Joe, Masaaki -> Matt), it seems fair to assume that they were for the convenience of interlocutors rather than fun or occidentalism. I read an interview with one guy like this who explicitly said that when he was sent to help manage a new acquisition in America, things went MUCH more smoothly when he invited the employees to call him John instead of introducing himself as Jun'ichi.

  42. Michael T. Wescoat said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 9:48 pm

    Last night I had dinner with an American potter who specializes in Japanese ceramics and has studios in both the U.S. and Japan. I noticed that sometimes he signed his work with his initials in the Roman alphabet, while other times he used a stamp with his name in kanji. (Unlike the majority of foreigners in Japan who simply use katakana, he had selected Chinese characters to sound out his name.) It turned out that he used his initials on all work made in his Japan studio, and the kanji stamp on all work from his U.S. studio. I did not question him any further on why he chose to adopt this practice.

  43. Garrett Wollman said,

    August 31, 2009 @ 9:57 pm

    My experience mirrors many of the commenters here. Among other things, I manage the user directory service at the large university research lab where I work (MIT CSAIL). There are large number of both "English name" and "native name" students, although it seems that the "native name" version is more common among the current generation of students. Our (Chinese-ancestry) director is Victor Zue; on official Institute documents his name is given as Victor Waito Zue, so I assume his Chinese name is Zue Waito, but I've never asked.

    One thing that I have noticed is a change in the conventional name order. Chinese historical figures and politicians are still cited, in English speech and writing, with the Chinese order, family-name-first, but all of the Chinese people I know of in the U.S. use English order (given-name-first), even those who don't use an "English name". A friend of mine, Xiaowei Yang, used "yxw" as her login name when she was a graduate student here; when she took a faculty job at UC Irvine, she flipped it around to "xwy" (which i find inordinately hard to type). This contrasts with the complete reversal of Japanese and Hungarian names, which are now (ISTM) universally cited in English given-name-first.

  44. Jeremy said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 12:52 am

    As an ESL teacher in Indiana, roughly half my school was Korean. And they all had American names: DJ, James, Jimmy, Via. There were only a couple of exceptions — a guy who insisted on using his family name, and a guy named "Jae Soon", which sounds close enough to "Jason" anyway.

    A Taiwanese girl I'm seeing here in Japan has the first name of "Yon Hwon" (or something like that, never seen it written), but goes by the name "Enka" because it's easier for Japanese to pronounce.

    One last bit on Japanese names, there seems to be a trend of selecting names with appropriate kanji and work with the language syllable-wise, but are nonetheless Western (English) names. Among my students in elementary/junior high school, I have Anna, Riku (Rick), Patricia (who still writes her name as Patorisia), Karen, Risa (Lisa), and others. Odd that all but one are female, though.

  45. Panu said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 3:23 am

    Actually, this reminds me of how it is in Irish Gaeltachts. The Gaeltacht people usually prefer English names among themselves. However, if they engage in politics and in Irish society at large and want to make a point of being Irish speakers, they will use the Irish form of their name. So, it is perfectly possible that it's your fellow Irish speakers who address you, say, as Joe Kane (and your immediate neighbours might know you as Joe Jimín Tom, i.e. Tom's [grandson,] Jimmy's [son,] Joe), but it's the English-speaking Irishmen who will know you as Seosamh Ó Catháin.

  46. YS said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 4:12 am

    The Chinese are calculated about choosing names for their children (and their non-Chinese friends) because, by dint of the process, i.e., picking words with everyday currency, all names carry instant meaning*. Even if they were lazy and went with the same-ol' same-ol' such as Bao and Wen, they're still regular words meaning treasure and cultured.

    * in homonymical cases, a little clarification might be required, e.g., my name is Ying as in English, not Ying as in hero or Ying the flower–a matter easily cleared up by writing out the character.

    In the West, the meaning of names seems to be irrelevant. For instance, Jacob (the top name for US baby boys last year) means supplanter, which doesn't sound very nice. A few names, such as Anthony, have lost their meaning entirely, but that hasn't stopped people from using them. Instead, importance is placed on two things: 1) how the name sounds (there's a hilarious episode of "Frasier" where Niles is agonizing over baby names and not wanting to insert a glottal stop between the first and last name) and 2) being named after someone, either a Biblical character or a direct ancestor–which brings up another culture clash: my Mom wants to know why Westerners would name their children after dead people?! Since most "official" name lists include examples of celebrities–dead and alive, the Chinese would not find them very satisfactory.

    It's quite understandable then, that when it comes time to pick an English name for themselves, the Chinese will turn to an English dictionary for something meaningful or go online to pick an auspicious name such as Benz (a much revered symbol in the Chinese culture).

    BTW neither of my parents took English names and though I wanted to as a kid, the better to fit in, I'm glad I kept the name my Dad gave me. It suits me.

  47. Brendan said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 8:14 am

    I went for a very long time without a Chinese name (other than an "official" one that I used when required) because I find the notion of going from 'Brendan O'Kane' to a Chinese surname and given name about as silly as the idea of going from, say, 张三 to "Jeff Smith." I wrote a whole blog post on the topic for my Chinese blog, and felt quite pleased with myself for not having a Chinese name until a new job required me to pick one for business cards. As an act of protest I went with 何毖.

  48. Jongseong Park said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 8:55 am

    YS: in homonymical cases, a little clarification might be required, e.g., my name is Ying as in English, not Ying as in hero or Ying the flower–a matter easily cleared up by writing out the character.

    Sorry to nitpick, but isn't the same character, 英, used for all three meanings? Maybe better examples are Ying 櫻 as in cherry, or Ying 鶯 as in oriole.

  49. Dan Lufkin said,

    September 1, 2009 @ 5:26 pm

    My last name is ambiguous to pronounce in Swedish (tjin or kin?). When I lived there I finally gave up and went by Lövgren whenever I had to get it across on the phone.

  50. J. W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2009 @ 10:57 am

    There's a picture on the front page of today's Wall St. Journal of the Dalai Lama in Taiwan with a local Roman Catholic dignitary named in the caption as "Cardinal Paul Shan Kuo-hsi," where Shan appears to be the family name. So His Eminence has both styles of given name deployed simultaneously.

  51. rainlion said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    i guess it is also because in the US people feel embarrassed when they cannot pronunce others' name correctly, so they prefer to call our chinese names, because thats our real name anyway.

  52. caffeind said,

    December 21, 2009 @ 7:54 pm

    My theory is Chinese from the PRC use Hanyu Pinyin names abroad for group solidarity setting themselves apart from HK/Taiwan/Overseas Chinese.

  53. brian said,

    June 29, 2010 @ 2:36 pm

    I'm an American studying Mandarin on my own, without a teacher. I chose a Chinese name (安彬锐) by myself, quite early on, to use on Chinese social networks. I knew it was risky to pick my own name without the help of a fluent speaker, so I took a lot of time and looked at everything I could find with regard to meaning, sound, balance, numerology, etc. As far as I've been able to tell, I did a decent job.

    From what I've read, it seems to be accepted for Westerners who have a Chinese name to use it in non-official contexts when they're in China. So when I go there, that's what I'll do–unless the person I'm talking to asks to use my Western name instead. And I see social networking as an extension of the country, so it makes sense to me to use my Chinese name there.

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