When Lindsay Jernigan, an American expat in China, noticed how often Chinese professionals had — for lack of a better term — "stripper" names like Candy and Cherry, she wanted to find a way to help them out. Jernigan said that often Chinese adults select an English name for American business or school purposes, but there wasn't a service available to help in the selection process. So she started the website bestenglishname.com to help Chinese people choose, well, their best English name. But why the stripper names? She explains the fascinating reasons below.
"Hello my name is, [insert very confusing Chinese name], but you can call me [insert equally puzzling English name. One that was usually popular in the 1970s]. This is a common way for Chinese people to introduce themselves when interacting with "foreigners." This practice dates back to the beginning of China's rapid ascension to economic superpower. As East got to know West, cross-cultural communication required that the given name be relevant and easy.
You may ask why are Chinese names so difficult for Westerners? If you ever take the leap to learn a little Chinese, your first month of lessons will most likely be just learning the alphabet (called Pinyin) that goes along with the characters. This alphabet was actually invented by the Russians in the 1920s. Herein lies the problem with Chinese names — trying to pronounce Qian or Xiu is not a simple phonetic exercise. And so the practice of the 'English Name' was adopted.
Some of you can think back to your first day of Spanish class when you pick your Spanish name that you are referred to for the rest of the year, or maybe even your Spanish career, which probably ended in high school. Well, it is both similar and different to a Chinese person picking an English name.
Like our Spanish class experience, many of them pick these names when they first start to learn English. Those names become email addresses; they appear on business cards, name tags, even job applications, and, therefore, these names can stick with them for a long time.
The English naming culture is wildly different to the Chinese naming culture, leading to a total misunderstanding as to how to pick an English name. We laugh when we hear Chinese with names like Furry, Eleven or Mars, but if you understand the Chinese naming culture, you will understand how they can adopt these names with a straight face. The main, overarching issue is that Chinese people are taking their own Chinese naming practices and using them to choose an English name. Here are some naming practices unique to Chinese and how they might affect English name choice.
- A Chinese given name can also be any word or character. There is not a strong distinction between a regular word and a name. This is why the Boat's, Mars's, and Genius's exist.
- Chinese is a much more complex language than English. They have a whole other level of language rooted in the characters. These characters, while very intimidating, are actually intricate and beautiful representations of words and meaning. There is actually even a level of Feng Shui in these characters called the Five Elements. It is important for these elements to be balanced. The elements are Fire, water, stone, metal, and wood. If you have a lot of Fire, you might want some water in your English name, so you pick Ocean!
- In China you can have a variant of a name that quite literally no one else has. It can be a very unique character with a meaning deeply rooted in your family's values. So oftentimes Chinese people will try to find a name that no one else has and invent a name himself or herself, like Harevil. Yes, this is a real life example.
- Chinese people put a lot of emphasis on the meaning of a name. This is a key difference that is often hard for Chinese people to understand. For example, Kendall — a really cool and strong name — actually means "Valley beside the River Kent." So instead people will often opt for the literal and choose a name like Beauty, Paradise, or Smile.
In creating BestEnglishName.com I have spent a lot of time understanding these cultural differences as expressed through names. I completely understand how English names can be confusing. For example, Violet is a beautiful name, colour, as well as flower, but neither Green nor Hydrangea are accepted as English names. The name Taylor can be for a girl or a boy, but Gary is strictly a name for a man. The name Mackenzie is a very popular and cute girl name, but it actually means "son of." It's confusing.
On our website we try to create content that is targeted to Chinese people making this decision. We try to express the importance of an English name in an international setting. We do our best to explain English names, their history, and how we as 'foreigners' choose a name. Our clients and users range from students in middle school starting to learn English for the first time, to a young professional at a multi-national company, to a mum in LA having her child in the US and needing name to put on his or her passport.
While our website began with the task of assisting Chinese people to choose an English name, our mission has evolved into what we think our users ultimately want and need — to feel confident and comfortable when meeting foreigners. Our website will soon expand to provide a fun and engaging platform to not only give them the essentials like a good English name, but to allow them to have more understanding of how their culture and the culture of traditional English speakers can truly merge. After all, this generation of Chinese is creating a new world culture for us all!