Tag Archives: globalization

‘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.

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The Globalization of Yiddish

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Julia Simon painted some of her favorite Yiddish words, using friends and strangers as models, at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.

Here’s a guest post from reporter Julia Simon

It started in Nairobi when I was talking to some Kenyan friends including Handerson Mwandembo.

Now Handerson doesn’t speak Yiddish, and yet I couldn’t help but notice that sprinkled into his conversation were certain Yiddish words. Words like “schmooze.” I asked him how he would use “schmooze” in a sentence. Handerson gives an example, “He passes exams because he occasionally schmoozed his lecturers.”

And then there was my friend Reham Hussein who also uses Yiddish words. But Reham doesn’t live in Kenya. She lives in Cairo, Egypt.

Reham says she often uses the word “schmuck” (which, in its original meaning, is not the most polite word but it’s commonly used these days). For example: “Okay, you had a problem with a taxi driver today, oh what a schmuck he’s being,” she says. “More or less like a person who doesn’t know what they were doing and they just keep going. Annoying in a certain way.”

I learned these same Yiddish words from my grandmother who grew up in a Jewish part of Melbourne Australia and my grandfather who learned Yiddish from his Brooklyn parents. But where did Reham pick it up?

“I was introduced to it by American media more than anything else.” Reham says On the NBC TV show Friends, she says, they use a lot of Yiddish. “And in Seinfeld they use it, even more than in Friends.”

American pop culture has long been full of Yiddish words. There’s Mel Brooks, of course. In this scene from “Spaceballs” he uses the Yiddish word “bubkes”.

And then there are Americans with no ancestral connection to Yiddish, like singer Barry White. In his famous song “Never Going to Give you up” he uses the word “schtick”.

More recently, rapper Jay Electronica used the word “schmuck” in a song.

Jan Schwartz is a professor of Yiddish at Lund University in Sweden. He says the widespread use of Yiddish in American culture tells us something. “It’s a great example of how the Jewish acculturation in America has been very successful,” he says. “Jews are comfortable in America, they can express their Jewishness publicly it’s not something you have to hide.”

Schwartz says these Yiddish words entered American English through the European Jewish immigrants who arrived in the US in the late 19th and early 20th century. But Schwarz says it’s not just American English getting the Yiddish treatment. He says there are a good amount of Yiddish words in Dutch too. Yiddish speaking Jews have lived in the Netherlands for hundreds of years.

So I called up some friends in the Hague, Meline Arakelian and Yannick Dierart, and I tried a little experiment with them. I gave them a few Yiddish words and asked if they knew the meanings. “Mazzel”, “Meshuganah”… sure enough they knew them from Dutch.

Meline says she really likes these words, “they are straight from life.” Yannick agrees. “They have a really lived in feel, like a real raw feel, straight from the street, straight from the marketplace. It feels like they’ve been said by centuries of people. A little bit poetic also, lyrical.”

Professor Schwartz thinks they’re onto something, both in the popular appeal of the words and in the lyrical aspect. But he hopes that non Yiddish speakers don’t just stop with the specific words – he hopes they go back to the source: Yiddish literature, Yiddish theater, and Yiddish standup comedy.

“I guess if that’s my mission– a mission impossible but a mission– is to kind of get people to appreciate the richness and the depth of this culture on its own terms,” Schwartz says.

Still, he says he is happy that Yiddish is getting the exposure. He says that in historical European Yiddish literature, you find these non-Jewish characters — the policeman, the postman — speaking Yiddish. The Jewish writers wrote about them with great pride.

The writers were happy that Yiddish wasn’t just a Jewish language– it reached out.

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