Dr. Donna Velliaris shares her content expertise on trending topics in education

What kind of…Name?

By Donna Velliaris on Aug 28, 2017
chinese and american photo
Unlike Westerners, a Chinese family name is put first, followed by the given name. Like Westerners, given names often express best wishes for a new born. Chinese believe, however, that a name can affect a person’s luck and perhaps, their destiny i.e., the Feng Shui of an individual. A name may call to mind the birthplace, birth time, or a natural phenomenon such as: Chen (morning); Dong (winter); Fang (fragrance); Fu (happiness); Jian (health); Jie (outstanding); Jing (Beijing); Lan (orchid); Li (courteous); Long (dragon); Ming (brightness); Shou (longevity); Wu (martial); Xin (reliable); Xue (snow); Ya (elegance); Yi (righteous); Zhong (faithful); and Zhu (pearl). The process of naming one’s child can be an exercise in creativity and adoption of a series of names/nicknames is a long-held custom in China.

Western names are widely adopted by Chinese-speaking students—in addition to their Chinese names—even though they are not used for official identification. When Chinese students take English names, they do not give up their birth names; the new one becomes an additional moniker. Chinese students with high(er) English-language proficiency and a rich(er) understanding of Western culture often choose simple and well-known/common English names e.g., Peter, Paul and Mary. Yet, in general, Chinese people are rarely enthused by the idea of sharing names with others. While Westerners see this as a coincidence or inevitable, this may trigger awkwardness among Chinese students in a class.

Unsurprisingly, as adopting Western names is becoming trendier and trickier, Chinese websites that specialize in unearthing an ideal moniker are only a click away. Over the years, I have taught students named Accelerator, Cash, Dragon, Evil, One, Only, Rain, Soap, Sparrow, Sparkles, and Spoon. I also had Cleopatra, Edelweiss, and Gatsby. My colleague shared that she had ‘Candy’, ‘Cherry’ and ‘Chocolate’ in her class, and once upon a time, there was a female student who introduced herself as ‘Easy’. Without doubt, it can be odd to announce, ‘Is Evil here today?’, ‘Could someone please send Cash to my office’, ‘Good morning Handsome’, ‘I am looking for Cinderella’, ‘You need to write more Shakespeare’, ‘I want Strawberry and Vanilla to partner-up’ or ‘Accelerator, you must slow down’.
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. —PRI’s The World [online], 22 April 2014
Chinese students’ English names can be derived from, for example: adjectives (Handsome and Pretty); animals (Rabbit and Fox); blockbuster movies (Terminator and Gladiator); body parts (Lips and Eyes); cartoons (Tom and Jerry); classic novelists (Shakespeare and Austen); colors (Yellow and Red); common nouns (Bin and Bamboo); companies (Ferrari and Yahoo); demonic/mythic entities (Lucifer and Dracula); desserts (Cake and Donut); elemental physics and chemistry terms (Quantum and Lithium); fairytales (Cinderella and Rapunzel); famous artists and celebrities (Michael Jackson and Michael Jordan); flavors (Strawberry and Vanilla); fruit (Lemon and Melon); gem stones (Diamond and Sapphire); hierarchical statuses (Baron and Duke); human conditions (Psycho and Mental); landscapes (Summit and Hill); numbers (Zero and Seven); places (London and Seattle); random foods (Pizza and Spaghetti); seasons (Autumn and Winter); shapes (Triangle and Cube); superheroes (Batman and Superman); vegetables (Pea and Potato); and weather patterns (Sunny and Rainy).
The use of Western names thus serves as a buffer, to avoid being too formal and too intimate, and to avoid the embarrassing situation of addressing someone mistakenly as in downward communication. —DW Asia [online], 8 January 2016
In the 1980s, I was an international exchange student to Japan. During my one-year relocation to Tokyo, I discovered that my name (Donna) in Japanese (どんな) translated to ‘What kind of…?’ My exchange student friend was Sara (さら) meaning ‘plate’ or ‘dish’. I suppose together we were ‘What kind of dish?’ And, Donna is a feminine first name meaning ‘woman’ in Italian, which was likened to the Japanese name ‘Takako’—with a certain Kanji designation—and given to me by one of my high school teachers. At the time, I trusted their translation and could have chosen to employ that name without knowing the true meaning and/or its potential ‘other’ pictographic/ideographic readings. For all I knew, I could have allowed folks to call me/interpret my name as ‘Asparagus’, ‘Ferret’, or even ‘Banana’. Incidentally, a Japanese novelist at the time was in fact ‘Banana Yoshimoto’.

Increasingly, androgynous, ethnic, invented, unfamiliar and/or names with varied rejigged spellings, have and are continuing to evolve. And, while some names may indeed influence initial perceptions of a person's character (e.g., Dragon), attractiveness (e.g., Cleopatra), or intelligence (e.g., Quantum), those perceptions will fade away once an individual’s real qualities emerge. As for me, I love my name. My name fits me...or do I fit my name? Hmmm…

Please be sure to check out the following publications featuring Dr. Velliaris' expertise regarding this topic: Handbook of Research on Effective Communication in Culturally Diverse Classrooms and Intercultural Responsiveness in the Second Language Learning Classroom.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of IGI Global.

Velliaris, D. M. & Pierce, J. M. (2017). Cultural diversity: Misconceptions, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings in class. In K. Jones (Ed.), Intercultural responsiveness in the second-language learning classroom (Chapter 6, pp. 84-105). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Velliaris, D. M. (2016). Culturally responsive pathway pedagogues: Respecting the intricacies of student diversity in the classroom. In K. Gonzalez & R. Frumkin (Eds.), Handbook of research on effective communication in culturally diverse classrooms (Chapter 2, pp. 18-38). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
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