The local teachers at the school sit me down and hand me a pen and paper. They want names, and lots of them.
I feel like a HUAC witness, but these are not names for interrogation. It’s the start of a new session, and every session teachers have to christen their new students with shiny new English monikers. Some students may have them from previous classes, but most do not.
I find that the teachers tend to pull these names from a very finite supply. So if you meet a lot of Chinese nationals with the same first name, that’s why. You can count on at least one Bruce, thanks to Bruce Lee, and a virtual bouquet of Lily’s. Why Lily, I don’t know. Although I myself was be guilty of naming a pair of adorable 8 year-old twins “Rose” and “Lily”.
Students take these English names seriously. And it makes things a whole lot less complicated for any idiot foreigner (such as myself) whom they will encounter in the future. Because if you ask someone for their name in China, they won’t say “Bob” or “Tom”. They’re most likely to offer their full name, unless you specify first or last. And if you do specify first or last, you’re likely to get the opposite.
See, in China the family name always comes first, followed by the given name. The family is the most important thing here, and that’s principally what you represent outside the home. Your individual name is an afterthought. As in, “My name is Smith John.”
Except it’s never as easy as Smith John. It takes me five times hearing a name before I can pronounce it—or I should say, before I can improve my mangled interpretation to an extent so as to be understood. My friends and colleagues are still helping me search for a Chinese name for myself that I can pronounce correctly.
So that’s why the teachers aim to fill up their reservoir with new English names before starting the new session. Reservoir filled, we’re ready to begin…