What’s Your English Name?


Any foreigner who has lived in China for a while will without doubt has been asked the question “What’s your English name?” many, many times. As for me personally, whenever the Chinese people ask me for my “English name” (as opposed to my newly acquired Chinese name), I simply answer Jan. When I see frowning faces, I immediately add that this is a Dutch name and not an English one and that, in fact, I don’t have an English name at all. This seems to be very surprising to some Chinese people, who apparently believe that all Westerners speak English and have English names. It becomes even more confusing when I tell them that in my home country, Belgium, we don’t speak Belgian, which simply does not exist, but we do have three official languages (Dutch, French and German) whereas English isn’t an official language at all.


HOW DO YOU DO: My name is Emily. What's yours?

In fact, as for Westerners, it is mainly people from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and New-Zealand who have English names, although some might have Spanish or French names, rather than English names. For many Chinese it seems hard to believe that on the European continent (excluding the British Isles) there is not one single country where English is an official language and that the vast majority of people simply do not have English names. Therefore, asking a French guy called “Louis,” a Norwegian girl called “Sissel,” a Polish girl called “Agnieszka” or a Greek guy called “Kostas” what their English name is, is somewhat inappropriate. Of course, I don’t think anybody would get angry when asked for his or her English name, but it would often be better to drop the English part and just ask for somebody’s birth name.

The widespread use of the concept of the English name unfortunately does not limit itself to simple daily conversations. On many official forms for foreigners, one is usually asked to write down his or her English name. Of course, every foreigner knows what this means, but if you are a Russian student called “Igor,” or a tourist from Argentina called “Pilar,” or a worker from Saudi Arabia called “Ahmed,” or a teacher from Japan called “Sayaka,” it does feel rather odd to be asked to fill out our English name. Wouldn’t it be better to write passport name in Latin characters?

Not only do many Chinese people assume all foreigners have English names, but many Chinese nowadays also have their own English names. From an article by Professor Lung Yingtai in Southern Weekend newspaper published in February, I learned that some times Chinese students are “forced” by a foreign teacher to get an English name, because the teacher thinks it’s too hard to memorize Chinese names. I must admit that for me personally it is not easy to memorize Chinese names either, but if the Chinese people write their name down for me, with characters and pinyin (with tones), it does become a lot easier to remember it.

Chinese students should make sure however that the names they choose really are English. I have met Chinese students who told me their English name was Zhege, Beeswax or White Snow (the last one apparently being a direct translation from Chinese), which, as far as I know, are not really English names.

As I said before, I don’t think any foreigner would get angry when asked for his of her English name when in fact one comes from a non-English speaking country. However, consistently using the concept of the English name in simple conversations with foreigners or on official forms for foreigners encourages Chinese people to believe that all Westerners have English names and therefore may prevent them from gaining a correct and profound understanding of the heterogeneity of foreign culture. On the other hand, the Chinese people are automatically using their own English name instead of their Chinese name when having contact with a foreigner, indirectly encouraging the foreigner to be lazy and at the end of his stay in China, he might not be able to pronounce one single Chinese name! It is my true hope that, as China successfully continues its opening-up policy and the world gets to know more about China, the Chinese people will, at the same time, gain a more thorough understanding of the diversity of foreign culture.