Why do Chinese people have English names?

Why do Chinese people have English names? How do they pick their names? Why don’t they keep their Chinese names? These are some of the questions explored in the art documentary Do You Have an English Name?

With the issues of immigration and assimilation being repeatedly brought up in the media, this documentary gives a rare personal glimpse into a process of so-called cultural ‘assimilation.’ Video artist and integrated media graduate Lu Zhengyun worked with OCAD University student Yiying Zhang to interview 10 Chinese-Canadian immigrants. The video first premiered at the Toronto Chinese Photo Festival.

The following is excerpts of some of the video transcripts:

Run “Sarah”, university student

“My principal gave the name Sarah to me and I only used it in high school and then I stopped using it. It was maybe easier for teachers and students at the time to say my name, so he just gave me it to me. He has two sons and no daughters, so he said if he did have a daughter, he would give her the name Sarah because he thinks its beautiful.”

“I only used Sarah – my friends called me Sarah because the teachers called me Sarah. It was too complicated to use two names at once. I don’t think that name suits me very well, and I like my Chinese name. I think it is pronounceable, if they can’t they call me “Run”. I want to keep that and my dad gave it to me.”

“Sometimes you wished people could just remember your name. If your name is too complicated and its giving people a hard time, then you should… personally I wish people can keep their original name. It’s where you come from and it’s your parents name.. I believe they give you the name for some reason. It’s you, it represents your culture.”

Ping, speaking about her daughter

We normally call her by her English name because she gets uncomfortable.. I am not really sure why. She feels that her Chinese name sounds weird and she really likes her English name. Her English name is ‘Shirley,’ which sounds similar to her Chinese name. She was 9 years old when she came here from China.. she is 11 now.

Richard, church administrator

I have an English name, Richard. It sounds easy, simple to pronounce, and common. When I just came here, people could not pronounce my Chinese name… I chose this name because the first part is ‘Rich,’ and I hoped that it can bring me and my family luck as a new immigrant and life gets better and better… I was very poor when I arrived so I hoped the name could make me wealthier and more prosperous.

Speaking about his children and why he gave them Chinese names

To remind them that they are Chinese. We also send them to Chinese language school every week. The Chinese teachers there call them by their Chinese name. Although they are already pretty Westernized, including the way they think and act and the way they speak English, we don’t want them to forget that they are Chinese.

Steve, IT Director, on how he didn’t choose to use his Chinese name

My second middle name is ‘Ching’ but being a Chinese that is … I don’t want to be a ‘chink’ so I didn’t use it.

For many Chinese migrants in North America, choosing an English name is not a desire to be white, or even to become assimilated to white North American society. Many of the interviewees said something along the lines of “When in Rome, do as Romans do.” There was also an anxiety about the acceptability of these names and what they meant. English names mean adaptation and survival.

The project is looking to expand to include an even greater variety of people. Special thanks to Lu Zhengyun and Yiying Zhang.

I will be presenting this as an academic paper at the University of Buffalo Second Annual Promise in Communication Research Symposium in October.

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2 thoughts on “Why do Chinese people have English names?

  1. Pingback: Victoria or Vicki

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