How Chinese People Choose Their English Name

“How did you choose the name Alan?” I asked a Chinese guy named Alan. His real, Chinese name existed in characters and now, due to modern developments in the world, in pinyin. But his parents never assigned him Alan.

“Oh, my English teacher in school gave it to me.”

“How did he choose Alan?”

“He said I looked like an Alan.”

Then I remembered Peter Hessler (as described in River Town) doing the same thing when he taught an English class. He went around the room on the first day of school, gave everyone an English name, and that’s the one they carried for the rest of their life.

Wouldn’t that be fun? “Ok, you’re a Chuck. You, well, you look like a Dick. Yep, I think Dick is just about right.”

10 Responses to How Chinese People Choose Their English Name

  1. austin says:

    when americans decide to assimilate into chinese culture, do they randomly acquire a name as well?

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    Interesting question. All the Western ex-pats now working in China have a Chinese name on their business card in addition to their English name, so I assume the answer is yes.

  3. Zoli Erdos says:

    That’s interesting, I did not know. I spent a year working in Singapore, and although I had double-sided business cards (English/Mandarin), the name did not change …

  4. Ryan Kellett says:

    Yes, many Americans working in China do take on a Chinese name, if only for formal relations. Many Chinese who know even a little English will use English names instead of Chinese names with Foreigners.

    In my Chinese class, almost all students received Chinese names based on 1) Their English Name (John Rice, for instance, took on the Chinese character for rice as his Chinese last name/first character, 2) What They Look Like and Their Personality which was the very subjective part. None of the teachers would really elaborate on how they came up with certain character for people but one could generally match a personality with the character meanings.

    No student got their name translated into their closest pinyin sound-alike and then translated into characters, even though that’s sort of how the Chinese translate celebrity names from Tom Cruise to Madonna.

    I was lucky enough to already have a Chinese name given to me by my grandfather so I didn’t have to play the “you look like a…” game.

    My favorite thing, though, is when Chinese college students don’t receive a English name or choose not to keep their English name given as a child. So, they pick new ones for themselves from random words in English. My favorites: Lucky, Romantic, and Bucket. Maybe they’ll want to change their English names when they enter the job market…

  5. Chris Yeh says:

    Better to have your English teacher give you a name than to rely on your parents…

    Some of the American-born Chinese I know have names like Wilmer, Lapoe, and Aenoch (frighteningly enough, one family was responsible for both of the latter).

    Give me a good Chuck any day.

    –Chris (who was almost named Preston)

  6. Bernadette Balla says:

    This reminds me when i had a classmate at sf and her name was Pui See. She was also a malaysian like me. My lecturer was taking attendance on the 1st day of school and the name Pui See really sounds like Pussy. I try not to choke on laughter twice a week. Even worse one time he asked her “Pussy you have anymore questions?” In my head i was thinking , yes sir many! Damn. Having to hear your teacher say “pussy” is priceless.

  7. Tammy says:

    My dad’s entire family of 8 or so was sponsored over here by a very nice family here in california and they lived with her for a year and she gave all my uncles their english names.

    I’m not sure how she chose the names, maybe they do looked like the name they were given; or they were just her favorite names and never got to use on her own kids.

  8. Wstern names in China are often very outdated and some have never really been names, like ‘bright’ or ‘sunny’ :)

  9. zhang says:

    I am a Chinese guy who also had a English name “Rocky”, but gradually I doubted if this name is suitable for me? Rocky’s image in werstern is a strong man, but I don’t have any similarity with the real Rocky, so I decided to change my English name.

    However, I really don’t know whether a typical English name such as William, Colin, James…is suitable for a Chinese guy. I don’t know how the western people think of that.

    The main purpose that I want to pick a English name is that my Chinese name is very hard to pronounce for western people. My Chinese name in pinyin is “Zhang Cheng”. So I want to get a easy pronounced English name.

    Who can give me some advice? Pick English name or not? And what’s principle should our Chinese people follow when picking English name? Thank you

  10. jimmy says:

    For Zhang Cheng, i think maybe Han? cheng is easy enough

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