Tag Archives: Chinese names

I have three Chinese names. Which one should I use?

People with English names sometimes take Chinese names. In fact, some expats in China consider a local name to be as important as a mobile phone number. It’s a must-have.

I don’t live in China, but I’ve been learning Chinese for a few years. Many of my fellow students have Chinese names. I decided that it’s high time I got one. Or three.

Three? It’s an insurance policy: China is full of westerners with abandoned Chinese names that have been tried out a few times on the locals—and failed. In the real world of the China street, they look or sound…weird.

So, I needed a Plan B. And C.

My first Port of Call was Boston’s Chinatown, where I go once a week to wrestle with the Chinese language.

Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Boston-based Chinese teacher Wenjing Li (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Wenjing Li, my teacher, grew up in Shanghai. And this is what she came up with when I asked her to give me a Chinese name: 博刻思 (Bo ke si).

There’s a nice lilt to that (listen to the audio above). It has a passing resemblance to my English name, which Wenjing says is all you need. Mandarin and English have such different phonetic systems that it’s pointless to try to force one language to sound like the other. You’d end up with one of those weird names.

Bo, the first syllable, means plentiful. But it might also imply a certain, shall we say, seniority, which Wenjing tells me is appropriate, “because you are older than me.” I ask her if it’s a name for an old person. Not necessarily, she says. Just someone who’s been around the block, and seen a few things.

The second and third syllables—ke and si—mean constantly, and thinking or considerate.

Wenjing has thrown in some wordplay too. The first two syllables bo and ke, pronounced differently, mean podcast. Very clever. She’s also included a potential banana skin in the final syllable, si. Pronounce it the wrong way with the wrong tone, and it sounds like the word for to die.

I tell her that it’s fitting that Chinese teacher gives me name that demands that I get my tones right.

For my second name I go to meet Tony Huang at the Great Mandarin Restaurant in the Boston suburb of Woburn.

Tony Huang, co-owner of Great Mandarin Restaurant, Woburn, MA (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tony Huang, co-owner of Great Mandarin Restaurant, Woburn, MA (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Tony is the co-owner, and he’s the father of a friend of mine. He was born and raised in Taiwan, and here’s his name for me: 白翠克(Bai cui ke).

Bai cui ke has some similarities to Bo ke si. Both play off the sound of my English name; they’re both three syllables, also like my English name; and they both include a ke, albeit different ones. But Tony’s name is assembled according to totally different principles: numbers and elements.

Numbers have traditionally played a key role in Chinese names. Older generations of parents would visit a fortune teller with date and time of birth of their child. The fortune teller would then assign a name based on a series of calculations involving, among other things, the number of strokes it takes to write the name in Chinese characters.

For my name, Tony didn’t need to go to a fortune teller. “I went to the fortune teller website,” he says.

I have trouble following all the calculations that Tony is doing. He leafs through page after page of notes. He has spent hours checking charts in books and on websites so he can be confident that my name is sufficiently auspicious.

The character stroke count of Bai cui ke is 26, which, Tony tells me, has both good and bad points. (It depends on a bunch other stuff, which you can read about here.)

When Tony points out a couple of aspects of the math that are “bad,” I ask him if he’s giving me a bad name. He says of course not, though I have trouble following his reasoning. There are apparently issues with the number of strokes of the first and second syllables combined (19) as well as the second and third (21).

But Tony knows what he’s doing. He’s configured things so that the name’s negative aspects indicate bad times for me in my 30s. I’m older than that—as Tony says, who cares what my name says about the past? From my mid-40s on, it’s all wealth and happiness.

There’s one more problem. Because the last two characters add up to 21, I apparently may not have a good relationship with my boss. We may just have to live with that.

I now have two names that I love. I may not need another Chinese name but I’m getting greedy. I want one.

I visit a friend, artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien. Wen-hao grew up in Taiwan and she lives now in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien (Photo: Patrick Cox)

Artist and calligrapher Wen-hao Tien (Photo: Patrick Cox)

“I like to find names that are a little vague and are humorous,” she says.

No stroke calculations here. Just intuition—and the look and sound of the name.

“You strike me as a very energetic person,” Wen-hao tells me. “Sporty. Somehow the sound of Cui and Patrick is a good fit.”

Cui is pronounced “tsway.”

Wen-hao continues: “Actually, there’s a famous rock singer, his name’s Cui Jian.”

How can I resist?

Wen-hao decides that like Cui Jian, the rock star, my name will have just two characters: 崔可 (Cui ke). “Ke means doable, OK, achievable,” she adds.

She paints the characters on a sheet of paper. She asks me what I think. I tell her I like it but I don’t have trained eye for these things.

“Oh, I think it looks pretty cool,” says Wen-hao.

Listening back to these interviews, I hear myself laughing—much more than usual. It’s giddy getting a new name. And judging by the laughter from Wenjing, Tony and Wen-hao, it must be giddy giving one too.

I realize now how much thought goes into giving someone a Chinese name, so much more than the other way round—calling someone Lucy or Lily or Tony. Tony tells me a Chinese waiter will change his English name if that name is already taken at his workplace.

As for my Chinese names, I’m not going to pick one, at least for now—I like them all. So American of me: spoiled for choice.


Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

‘Hello, my name is Yes,’ and other English names in China

Shi Zhi's English name is Yes, as his T-shirt proclaims  (Photo: Ruth Morris)

Shi Zhi’s English name is Yes, as his T-shirt proclaims (Photo: Ruth Morris)


Here’s a guest post from Shanghai-based reporter Ruth Morris.

Any foreigner in China has their own list of odd English names they’ve come across.

There’s Dell, who fixes computers. Tomorrow was a job applicant. A quick tally by friends also includes Cabbage, Box, DreamJazz, Nothing, Eat and Fancy Go-Go.

Names say a lot about us when we get to choose them for ourselves.

Yes is an actor. He said he chose that name on the spur of the moment at a party.

“I went to my American friend’s party and he asked me, ‘Oh, what’s your name?'” Yes recounted. “I said, ‘Shi Zhi.’ And he says ‘Shieie Jieu?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, something like that.'”

The Chinese word shi means be, or is. It’s also used as an affirmation, like saying, “Yes.” As a family name, it’s pretty uncommon in China.

So at the party, Shi told his American friend: “The Shi is like Yes!” He’s been Yes ever since. He kept it, he said, because it’s funny and positive.

Young Chinese people often adopt English-language names to help out their foreign friends who struggle with the tones in Mandarin. It’s like offering safe passage across a linguistic minefield.

But that’s not to say that all Chinese people embrace the idea of using English names. Gao Jian, a professor at the English department of Shanghai International Studies University, said he went by James with foreign friends until about 10 years ago. Today he refuses to use it, preferring his Chinese name.

“Sometimes we have a chat about some students,” he said. “My colleague will say, ‘Rose told me… ‘ or, ‘Jack told me… ‘ I say, ‘Who’s Rose? Who’s Jack?’ I don’t know their English names. I hate that frankly.”

Gao said Chinese students started using English names in the 1990s, when China was opening its doors to the world. They saw English as their ticket to a good job, perhaps with a multinational company, and they were proud of their English proficiency.

But Gao said attitudes are changing. More and more of his students are adopting names that sound like their given names in Chinese, or else have a similar meaning– like Shi becoming Yes. Gao attributed the switch to a deepening sense of national identity that takes pride in China’s linguistic heritage.

Liu Shu Wen aka Cinderella (courtesy Liu Shu Wen)

Liu Shu Wen aka Cinderella (courtesy Liu Shu Wen)

Others take their names from classic novels, hip-hop artists, movies or even fairytales.

Liu Shu Wen, also known as Cinderella, is a marketing executive at a car company. The rags-to-riches motif seems especially fitting in a country that’s just come through a 30-year economic growing spurt. But for this Cinderella, it’s more about character.

“I think Cinderella has a very strong heart, even in a very high pressure (situation) from her evil mother and her sisters,” she said. “I think I can be like her, have a strong heart inside.”

There are some pretty normal names going around too, although they sometimes have unexpected origins. Yong Wei is a microbiologist. His English name is Tom.

“I picked it back when I was in middle school and that’s one of the few English characters I knew from a cartoon-Tom and Jerry,” he said.

Tom, of course, is the cat in the MGM animated series. That seemed like a unique choice. Then, separately, I met Jerry.

“For one thing, I have small eyes. [That] makes me like Jerry in the cartoon,” Jerry said. “And for another thing, Jerry is always the naughty one, but always, you know, who wins the battle, every time.”

Jerry studied English and American literature at college. He had a classmate who went down a completely different road and named himself Nixon. President Richard Nixon might conjure memories of Watergate at home. But in China, he’s remembered for helping to normalize relations between China and the United States.

“My teachers back in college, they always wanted us to be the bridges between China and the western countries,” Jerry said. “So he’s a guy with a lot of ambition and passion for cross-cultural communication.”

Jerry said he’s noticed a new trend. He’s coming across more westerners who are making a big effort to learn Chinese. For example, a Dutch colleague recently made a point of learning, and remembering, Jerry’s Chinese name.

“When he really asked me about my Chinese name I was kind of surprised. My second thought was, ‘It’s a very cool thing, and it’s equal,'” Jerry said.

Initially, Jerry adopted an English name because he wanted to look outwards, and help build a bridge to the West. But now, he says, more and more westerners are coming to China, and meeting him halfway.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Speaking in Tongues and Dreaming in Chinese

A new PBS documentary, Speaking in Tongues, follows four students and their families at dual immersion schools in San Francisco. The film offers evidence that the study of math, science and other subjects in more than one language gives students an edge, despite what some disapproving relatives might think.

I heard about this film many months ago. What really intrigued me about it was that the filmmakers — Marcia Jarmel and her husband Ken Schneider — have a big stake in this subject themselves. Ten years ago, they enrolled their older son into a Chinese immersion elementary school. A few years later, they did the same with their other son. It seemed to me that the best way to do a story about the film was to do a story about the Jarmel-Schneider family. So I interviewed them all at their house in the Richmond District of San Francisco (where many local stores are owned by Chinese speakers).

Of the four school students profiled in Speaking in Tongues, one is close in circumstance and motivation to the two Jarmel-Schneider boys.  Julian Ennis is a high school sophomore, whose white middle class American parents have no obvious link to China or the Chinese language. Yet their son is taking the highest level of Chinese offered in San Francisco schools. He — and they — are in it for cultural exposure, as global citizens.

Among the the others profiled, Durell Laury is attending a Chinese immersion elementary school. He is the only kid from his housing project going to that school. He mother says learning Chinese is “a way in and a way out.” There’s also Jason Patiño, attending Spanish immersion school. His Mexican parents — who didn’t attend a day of school themselves — listen to other Spanish speaking parents at the school, as they demand more English be spoken. But without the Spanish Jason is learning in class,  chances are he’d forget the language of his parents.

Finally there’s Kelly Wong, whose Chinese-American parents speak virtually no Chinese. Kelly is learning both Mandarin and Cantonese. This allows her, among other things, to have a meaningful relationship with her Cantonese-speaking grandmother. There’s one extraordinary scene at a family banquet, at which her great aunt objects to her learning Chinese, while another family member defends the decision to send her to Chinese immersion school. That scene feels like it could one day be America writ large, as migration and globalization bring the world to America, and the idea of bilingualism takes hold — and not just in polyglot places like San Francisco.

Local listings for Speaking in Tongues are here.

Also, I talk with linguist Deborah Fallows on living in China and learning Chinese. In Chinese, she says, rude is polite, and brusque is intimate. This comes out in all kinds of disorienting (no pun intended) ways, but the bottom line is, if people feel close to you in China, they will use a language of intimacy. That’s another way of saying they will dispense with please, thank you and other niceties. Their language is likely to seem harsh and abrupt.  Just remember:  it’s a compliment!  Check out other interviews Fallows did with Time and NPR. Better yet, listen to my interview with her, which is longer, weirder and funnier: we do Chinese names for foreigners, English names for Chinese people, and what happened to the language during the Sichuan earthquake. Here’s her book in the United States and the UK.



7 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized