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

What’s in a Name? Foreigners in China with a Chinese Name
May 17, 2017 By Yang Jiao , eChinacities.com

“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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If anything, it will be a interesting alternative to your regular, inconspicuous name.

Jun 02, 2017 18:28 Report Abuse



“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 Report Abuse



What do you mean for "fake Schools"? I worked in a "real" pubblic school - luckily on behalf of a British College and there was all the discrimination described above. I enquired in other schools, talked to teachers and tried to investigate in different provinces and the result was always the same: on top Americans, then British people, for some strange reasons Australian after the Brits, European (white), coloured people (they ignore if they have English as First language, because they just look dark) and last place was for Asian/oriental features... I am glad if I was wrong because I adore China and the level of discrimination I noticed is just atrocious.

Jun 17, 2017 18:00 Report Abuse



Summary: Names are important, thanks to the author

May 17, 2017 01:36 Report Abuse



I am ethnic American but I made up a Chinese name for myself. It's seems Chinese often have English names so I figured I would follow. It's actually my second Chinese name. In order to register for the site renren.com a Chinese name was necessary. So, while in the US, two Chinese girls named me Sun Jia-Yi meaning "good translation grandson". It was similar, very distantly, to my real name, which is ethnic American. Then in China I find out it's a "name for girls"... and I'm a boy. Also, good translation grandson didn't really seem to fit me. I think I'm nice, and try to be kind to my grandparents. But this whole "good translation" concept... whatever it is.. is not a concept in the English-speaking world. For some reason I kept thinking about the Chinese word fu as fortune. It might seem a little crazy but if I was in a bad situation I would blame myself, and think to myself .. im in a bad fu. And, if I changed my fu, I would be in a good fu. Also, for some reason I was thinking about dragons, and myself as a dragon. In Chinese long is the word for dragon. Plus, in more than one way long could describe me. So, after visiting the Temple of Heaven in Beijing I decided on a new name: fu long. Actually I can't decide whether it should be long fu or fu long. I've been going with fu long. Apparently the way I was pronouncing the name means fortune wolf, not fortune dragon. I can't actually pronounce my Chinese name. I'm not sure all Chinese were that impressed with my Chinese name. It's like the feeling I get when I try speaking some Chinese. If I'm speaking Mandarin, and have a Chinese name, it's seems they would prefer I'm a foreigner. They don't want me taking on Chinese characteristics. Only once has a person actually called me by my new Chinese name, and I didn't at first respond.

Feb 22, 2015 19:43 Report Abuse



Our son is having a difficult time fitting in, or should I say, facing an IDENTITY BATTLE force upon him - making friends at a park or playground no problem, but, everywhere else we go, be it shopping, traveling or whatnot, he is virtually INTERROGATED dozens of times a day. If we ride the bus and I look around, no other Chinese kid is subjected to the kind of scrutiny he has to endure. He has to hear and bear all kinds of questions and comments, like: besides so-called normal ice-breakers like, How old are you? Can you speak Chinese? Do you go to kindergarten? Etc. Other more hurtful things go like, "You're not Chinese are you" (to which playground kids refuse to include him or share toys), or "hey, xiao-lao-wai" 小老外 (older people so rudely blurt out which he does need to be exposed to), or even wai-guo-lao 外国佬, etc. He started off as a proud American-Chinese - (He Chinese competency is virtually better than mine, while his English ability is also fluent native-level for his young age.) Yet, now almost rejects the idea that he is Chinese because of his everyday experiences. From 2 years old, attempting to go out from our own elevator apartment he was faced with local kids and grandparents making such an insulting and unfeeling remarks, 我们中国没有哪个! basically, "We don't have THAT in our country" - I defended that fact that my child, any child is not a 'na-ge' THAT, but a person (with feelings - as he used to want to cry when he finally was old enough to understand what they were implying - He's not one of them); and yes, despite his mixed heritage, he does exist and he is living here in China! Over the years we've moved about and lived in a couple more completely different provinces, and found it's basically the same for him. We won't put him in regular school, and choose to do home-schooling until he is fully school age and by then will probably leave to a developed and more open society! Since the age of three, he can count to ten in at least five different languages (thanks to a wind up toy in which I taught him to use those languages for each twist - Korean, Spanish, Japanese, and or course English and Chinese). He can already out speak most high school or even college English students (as I and his Chinese mom both teach, and frequently let him attend a class or too with us - from our kindergarten teaching to college level students that he is also used to). Many Chinese teachers underestimate him or fail to understand his English only because it turns out to be more advance than theirs; and when it comes to Chinese language, which is quite natural for him, he has differing ideas in points of view, or even uses quips many others fail to understand because his imagination and expressions base is so huge; so in turn they try to make it seem as if he has a problem due to THEIR lack of understanding! For example, perhaps an a-yi (auntie) hailing from the country side tries to befriend him and engage in conversation, they tend to shout loudly at him "HEL-LO", and although we try to teach him to be both polite and respectful, it's just a big turn-off for him, so he doesn't want to say anything at all. So their usual reaction lacking education, might be "Oh, he doesn't understand..." Yet, now, if he chooses, he has learned to make polite remarks to help the situation, be it an elder using an extremely loud voice to try to engage him in conversation, or asking people especially strangers not to touch his face when to happen to meet. He has to deal with lots of modern cultural differences, as we have set some living standards and habits (do's and don'ts to live by) for him to follow no matter in which part of the world we happen to live. For example, our neighbors small kids can roam freely between the buildings (out of eye-shot to play with all sorts of objects), and/or dash across to street to buy something, whereas our son is not allowed to cross without adult supervision although I want him to be confident to be able to do so, yet I do not wish to take unnecessary risks just to "follow the crowd". Just a week ago in a new city to work, we went out to eat at a restaurant we deemed to be a nice place. Yet, it completely took us off guard. A middle-aged woman, apparently the owner just stared at my son (who happens to be quite good-looking, very bright, and very articulate in both fluent English and Chinese; I was dressed in neat, casual business attire, having just completed some work-related activities... My son was dressed sharply too, knowing ahead of time we would be spending time out). My kid gleefully entered the restaurant first, and I right behind him just a couple of steps; and together waiting to be seated; we gaze over at an empty table. The owner/server only stared at him as if he/we had just landed from Mars as she was about to give change to another older couple already finished their lunch and proceeding to leave. And then in the coldest, harshest voice the service lady could muster she asked "What are you doing in here?" I, practicing my nicest speaking voice in Chinese stated 'we would like to have lunch - we are customers'. The lady sharply replied, "I don't see you as customers". And as I tried to ask 'Why not? What’s wrong?’ the other dining couple graciously stepped up in our favor an announced to the witch that her attitude was totally wrong and inappropriate. We should be treated simply as regular patrons. And, the woman kindly added, 'besides the kid is so cute!' I bravely added my child was born in China and should be treated as any other kid, even if a minority! But, I know I am a foreigner and I am used to being reminded and called "foreigner" in so many ways, however it's not humane to refer an innocent child as just some kind of "OUTSIDER"... He's going to grow up with some sort of complex; and I preached on in Chinese as we made our way out. Just down the street was another restaurant which turned out to be totally opposite - it was extremely friendly, welcoming and relaxing. They even presented my son some fresh flowers from the walkway entrance as we made long, pleasant conversation with the staff and other customers as we sat to relaxing, tasty meal for an extended period of time in our afternoon (trying to forget the previous, unwelcoming experience)!

Oct 24, 2014 01:52 Report Abuse



another victim of black/white thinking, i guess. either you are not-chinese, or you're a chinese with a foreign passport. perhaps it's a product of jealousy that local monolinguals wont allow you to claim both. this rigid thinking manifests on many levels. it's all or nothing here: rudeness or humility, expectations met or not adhered to, success or complete failure, harmony or violent revolt, chinese or foreign. nothing in between.

Oct 13, 2014 18:27 Report Abuse



Really enjoyed this article! A lot of my friends who are BBC or ABC have the same issues that you've described above, and hopefully things in China will change.

Oct 13, 2014 10:56 Report Abuse



It is a very good article. I am experiencing the same situation. It happened yesterday at Page One Sanlitun - literally... The cashier asked my husband (in English) - Do you have a member card? Would you like a bag for your books? I queued behind my husband and guess what the cashier asked me (in Chinese) - ni buyong daizi, dui ma? 你不用袋子, 对吗? What a service indeed...

Oct 13, 2014 09:18 Report Abuse



Very good article this, probably the best I've ever read on this site. The experience of overseas Chinese is something that not enough attention is paid to. The world is f***ed up when it comes to race in circumstances such as this. I'm British/South-African, but because both places have white populations and I'm white it is never questioned and I'm fully accepted in both places. However if one is mixed race such as this British Chinese author she will find it very difficult to be accepted as fully British or Chinese in EITHER country.

Oct 13, 2014 02:25 Report Abuse