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What’s in a Name? Foreigners in China with a Chinese Name

May 17, 2017 By Yang Jiao , Comments (4)     Add your comment Newsletter

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“So what’s your English name?”

“It’s just my Chinese name, spelt out.”

“Oh. Are you native English then? It’s a little strange you do not have an English name.”
Bewildering as it was to the Chinese lady – a prospective employer for a voice-over gig – on the other end of the email exchange, I am Chinese, and yes, also British, or native English, however you like to call it.

At the tender pre-school age of my first few years in London, my parents had toyed with the idea of re-naming me Jasmine or Jade or some other auspicious English word. But eventually settled with what I already had.

What’s in a Name? Foreigners in China with a Chinese Name
Photo: Sarah Joy

When a Chinese name gets in the way of employment

It was during an application for a voice over job, that differences in attitude towards Chinese and Western names became apparent. Even though I had sent in a sample of my perfectly pronounced accent with a dash of posh, and we’d begun to talk hours and pay, suddenly my Chinese name jumped out at the recruiter lady as suspect, who by the way, calls herself Sandy. Thus I didn’t make the cut for some children’s education audio material that required a British female voice.

I followed up with an explanation of British multi-culturalism, how I’d grown up among Rajeshs and Raziahs who were no less British than any Tom, Dick and Harry; oh and I thought this was a good one – how the president of the United States has a non-“English” name yet is proudly American. An indignant Londoner friend of mine, who was doing the British male voice-over, typed up a tirade about how my face does not even feature for anyone to dispute my British standing. But that only seemed to confuse Sandy more. She writes: “So your friend is a Chinese girl. Here we want an English girl.”

Names as identity of our heritage

Our names are the stamps of our identity, especially for the Chinese, as every character chosen by parents is imbued with all their well wishes. In stricter traditions, names denote a place in the family lineage, not to be tampered with. It’s not common to change a name. So why is it that immigrating abroad provokes the need to re-label oneself? This seems especially prevalent among the Chinese immigrant community. Is it a desire to fit in? A practical consideration for being addressed correctly? I don’t have the answer, but a darker reasoning does jump to mind. And that’s what the Chinese themselves will readily admit to as they criticize others: the dynasty-spanning Chinese ailment of chong yang mei wai – revering the overseas, being obsequious to the foreign. This is the very attitude that caused wars in Chinese history. And it sneaks about still in today’s society.

I have never encountered overt discrimination in the UK. It’s normally just a healthy curiosity as to my background. But Beijing is a different story. Ironically, here in the land of my roots, I am a perplexing entity to many.

Three years working at a mammoth Chinese organization, I have on occasion been overlooked for opportunities that through an unspoken requirement, favour a “foreigner” in the most literal sense. I may be carrying a valid British passport, talk about the weather like it’s nobody’s business, apologise profusely for someone stepping on my shoe, sneer at Americans’ inability to spell “colour” and “flavour” correctly, and pine after pints in a pub… But I’m also unmistakably Chinese.

When I’m out with my “foreign” boyfriend or friends, I’ve been mistaken as an interpreter, or once as I left my boyfriend’s apartment, by the neighbor as his housing agent. At 8pm in the evening, I must be rather dedicated. And most irksome of all comments: “that must be why your English is so good – all that practice”. Just recently, a Chinese headhunter promised me an array of potential roles that will utilize my “pretty good English”. 

My boyfriend delights in watching me get worked up in such situations. Amid the teasing, he does make a point, that it’s an easy assumption to make, to hear me conversing in Chinese with another and take it at face value. It’s not just a Chinese conjecture – I’ve had Americans here ask me why my English is so good (I put that down to the accent). Entirely understandable as in this environment, most people like me are typically ABCs (American born Chinese), BBCs (British born Chinese) and so on, with Western names like Kristen or Sue and at best conversational Chinese. These second or third generation overseas Chinese are more likely to relate to the culture of their upbringing, than that of their ethnic origin. In fact, I know of many who rejected their Chinese associations while growing up. Taking on a Western name, in some ways is perceived as proof of one’s “foreignness”.

There’s no judgment here on how one chooses to be identified. What I see, is what this propensity to face-value assumption reflects, and that’s the infant stage Chinese society is at. China is opening up, but a long way from being open. It is hugely homogenous. It is not yet familiar with the concept of multi-culturalism. It is still wary about handing out residency permits, let alone passports to foreigners. One cannot be this AND that. One is Chinese, otherwise foreign, evidenced by a foreign name.

Hey, I’m no victim. I often play the Chinese card to my advantage. But the underlying mentality of chong yang mei wai has another shadier edge, and that’s who qualifies as yang, or foreign. Laowai is a term that’s become essentially synonymous with Europeans, North Americans and other Caucasians. Anyone who doesn’t fit the light skinned, light haired look, well, certainly drew the short straw here.

“White” laowais are given preferential treatment often by virtue of their looks. Take English language teachers. A white non-native English speaker will likely be hired over an Asian native-English speaker, because they look more the part. Let’s not even go there with black people. I know of schools with essentially a colour-based salary band. And everyone’s heard of the tales of Chinese companies hiring white foreigners to give their business what they think is a credibility boost and international standing.

Of course, these are extreme cases, and there’s probably not even a conscious element to exclude or discriminate. It’s still early days, and as more people move across borders, attitudes will likely shift too. As for me, if anyone asks, I like to think of myself as straddling the best of both worlds. But before this becomes an acceptable category by the wider Chinese community… in the meantime, perhaps I’ll boost my legitimacy by adopting a pseudonym – Queenie or Coco, or maybe even Sandy. That’ll stop anyone from second-guessing how British I am.

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Keywords: Chinese names Chinese and Western names attitudes towards Chinese names

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4 Comments ( Add your comment )


Summary: Names are important, thanks to the author

May 17, 2017 01:36

Amazing how we don't do that in the States? Oh, Chinese person, what's your American name? You know why? Because we are suffering from gross inferiority complexes. My name is my name. I will not get a Chinese name because I am not Chinese! Don't like it, Chinese people. . .I couldn't care less!

May 17, 2017 11:30

“White” laowais are given preferential treatment often by virtue of their looks. Take English language teachers. A white non-native English speaker will likely be hired over an Asian native-English speaker, because they look more the part." True...if you apply to work as an ESL teacher at one of the thousands of fake schools in this country. The real schools in China couldn't care less what your color is. I have colleagues who are from India and Africa making 30K+ b/c they are highly qualified teachers. In my six years in China, I don't recall ever having been given preferential treatment for my skin color. I do recall having been mocked, pointed and shouted at, taken advantage of, and phsically assaulted.

May 18, 2017 02:54

I've gotten the "you're a foreigner so you can never understand" crap, even though I know more about their history, culture, and traditions than most of the locals. I've been threatened out with my Chinese wife a few times. One guy tried to convince me MY wife was HIS girlfriend with four people with him. Pointed and shouted it is common place here. They are really immature little children at heart. Mocked is normal too, especially if they think you don't speak the language or understand it. Assaulted. . .luckily, I'm 6'2" and built like an NFL Offensive Lineman, so that, thankfully, hasn't happened to me (yet). But I do agree. Sadly, "white" looking is always given preference.

May 18, 2017 08:38

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