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Chinese Uni Students On Why They Still Use Western Names

A hundred-thousand Chinese students will enrol in British institutions this year, but only around half will keep their Chinese names.

David Brown

Most people try to reinvent themselves when they arrive at university, normally with a poorly-chosen bomber jacket or the sudden pretence they've read more than five books.

Many international students coming from Asian countries, however, adopt more than just a new affectation. Almost 100,000 Chinese students were enrolled in UK universities this year, with around another 50,000 enrolled from Hong Kong and across South East Asia. Many of these students will decide whether or not they should temporarily discard their real name and take on a Western one while studying in the UK.

But why does it happen?

The idea that students are compelled to take on an English name upon arrival sounds like a horrible postcolonial hangover, and by and large it's not something universities encourage.

"I've never encountered an official policy either here, or when I worked at Cambridge University, that advises foreign students to take on English names," one representative from the University of Nottingham told me. "Though, in my experience, around 50 percent of Chinese students I meet – and a smaller number of South East Asians – do choose to."

Other universities with large intakes of Chinese students, such as Manchester, UCL and Sheffield, also confirmed that they don't advise students to change their names – that free choice is the general policy.


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Feiyang Cai and Yifei Yan (otherwise known as Will and George) tell me there are good reasons for overseas students to use English names in general, but particularly if they are Chinese: "In most of my classes there are at least ten Chinese students," says Feiyang. "So if the teacher pronounces your name wrong they are all going to laugh, whereas nobody in my class realised we were saying a Thai classmate's name wrong because there were no other Thai students to find our bad pronunciation amusing."

Yifei claims that Chinese pronunciation can be tricky even for native speakers. "My name is quite complicated to pronounce," he says. "So, in fact, I use the nickname Tufei, which is easier to say and means something like 'bandit' in English. It's a nickname that makes people laugh, particularly as I study business, as it makes them think I'm being honest about wanting to take their money."

Some Chinese and English names are pronounced in a fairly similar manner, allowing students to pick an English equivalent that at least resembles the sound of their birth name. Baowen picked the name Bonnie when she came to the UK because it sounded like her name in Chinese and also like her favourite animal, the bunny rabbit.

"Non-Chinese speakers don't understand the meaning of my real name," she says. "When used together with another character my name takes on a different meaning. For example, the names in my family make up a set – mine means 'paper', my sister's 'ink' and, finally, my brother's name means 'pen'. My grandma chose these names because she was so proud of my mother becoming a university professor."

Fortunately, as they're not written on any official documents, choosing a Western name is not permanent for Chinese students. As Chuting Feng informed me: "A friend who was really good at English in high school told me 'Viola' was a good name, but when I was in Oxford everyone laughed at me and said it was an old lady's name, so now I've changed it to 'Val'." Another student changed his name from Gavin to Galvin when he met another student with the same name, and then to Calvin on the advice of his teacher.


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This flexibility can lead to cruel jokes; one Chinese student, Ting, says: "When I was in the States some American 'friends' told me a good American name was 'McLovin'. I thought it was just a regular name, like 'Jack', but a bit cooler. I didn't realise it was a joke name of a character from Superbad until much later."

There is no easy, politically correct answer to this issue. Chinese students are free to use their birth names should they choose, but using English alternatives is becoming increasingly common. Indeed, some have had one since school for use in online dealings and international correspondence, and it's even becoming more common in China.

"Some Chinese characters can be pronounced in a lot of different ways," says Feiyang. "So even though two people look like they have the same name, their names might sound completely different. That's why, in a lot of Chinese companies, people now use their English names. I like the fact that my English name makes me approachable to lots of different people."

Minha Lee, a researcher in moral conflict and emotions in Human Technology Interaction at the University of Eindhoven, claims this flexibility in name choice can be found in a variety of online interactions. "In online roleplaying games, Asian players may pick English handles from Larry to Lucifer666 at the start of the game, as English is the language of international communication," she says. "However, in other situations where the dominant social group is not English, handle choices change to reflect players' native languages."

Minha adds that just because many Chinese people agree to using an English name, it's not necessarily what they want: "On a personal level, I dislike having a name forced upon me," she says. "When I first moved to the US, my brother and I were taught English by a pastor who called me Michelle, which he said was similar to Minha and meant something like 'little angel'. I remember hating it and thinking, 'That's not me.'"

All of the Chinese students I speak to insist they faced no overt pressure to use an English name. Furthermore, Xuchen Guo / May alerts me to the fact that cultural differences can sometimes make it socially awkward to use a Chinese name in the UK. "In China, teachers will address you by both your first name and family name, as using just a first name implies emotional closeness. Here in England, where teachers tend to use just your first name, it'd be a bit weird for teachers to start calling me Xuchen, as it would suggest we're friends."

Either way, non-Asian students would do well to remember as they embark on this new chapter in their life: while they're just giving up Fat Face jumpers or World of Warcraft habits, their Chinese and South-East Asian friends are taking the reinvention game to a whole other level.