English names of Chinese children have little to do with their Chinese names. First Chinese names have meaning, which you can translate into English. So in theory you could just translate. My girlfriend is name Xue with a high to low to high intonation, which means snow. However, I don’t call her snow; I call her Cher, which according to her parents is supposed to sound like her real name. The two names in the ears of a native English speaker are about as close as the word hay and the name Hank. You may make the argument that maybe I just don’t understand the similarity because I don’t hear the same, and maybe you’re right. In Brooklyn I had student named Snow, or Xue and her English name is Sally.
Many Chinese students actually choose their names and unlike that name you chose for your German or French class, these students actually use them. Living in Hong Kong where English is an official language it goes on your resume, your travel documents, your name tag if you work anywhere, people are name tag crazy here, but that’s not for now. What is for now is the fact that I’m jealous. I would have loved to choose my own name.
Instead of choosing my name, I was stuck with Justin, after Justin Hayward the lead singer of Moody Blues. Now this would be ok if two pop stars, which I want to have no association with, didn’t also share the same name, of course I speaking of Justin Timberlake and Justin Beiber. After the rise of these two Justins, I wouldn’t mind a name like, Mountain or Tree, a name that hints at my love of nature but also hints at something poetic and manly, if such a thing is possible.
However, my recognition of my love of nature is a relatively recent development. So in all fairness what would I have chosen when I was ten or eleven? I would have chosen something that I loved and that was GI Joe, so my name would have been Cobra the group of bad guys that Joe battled. In Chinese it would be Yan Jing She, and as I’ve found with many students here I wouldn’t have been able to say it, and everyone would wonder what the hell that has to do with Justin Timberlake.
Chinese children also have tendency to choose names that end in vowels such as Dickey, Ricky, Tommy, Pinky, Frankie, Polly, Benny, Harry, Wendy, Harry, Vicky, Mandy, Queenie, and Yoyo. Then there are also the names that stray into toy territory such as Kitti, as in the ubiquitous Asian cat Hello Kitti, or the equally well-known Mickey from Disney. Knowing little or nothing about Chinese culture before coming here I would have probably chosen the uninspiring name surname Chang, which is the American equivalent of naming yourself Smith or Johnson. Or I would have chosen Dragon Ball Z, all as a first name.
In fairness these are children choosing their names and being children they have little or no consideration for their future. Some may be reading this and thinking of a certain tattoo they got on their forearm or the upper curve or their bottom that they have to keep covered at business meetings and company outings. Just like tattoos these names have a tendency to stick. Kitty may use it all the way through secondary school and when she goes to study in a University or an English speaking country it will travel with her on her passport. It will then appear it on her transcripts and ultimately her diploma and before she has a chance to change it she’s Kitty Esquire. Which brings me to Thomas.
I taught Thomas during an introductory English course for his first year in secondary school. His Chinese name is Yue Ma. I noticed that Thomas’s pencil case had a Thomas on it as well, Thomas the Tank Engine, a children’s cartoon character many outgrow when they’re are 8. Perhaps at 12 he believed that he had outgrown Thomas. During the last class as Thomas was handing in his notebook, which would be reviewed by the principal of his new school, he gathered his courage and demanded his workbook back. I thought that he wanted to finish a page that he left blank, but he never opened it. Where it said Thomas he erased it and quickly wrote Doraemon.
Doraemon is a Japanese, mechanical, time-traveling cat with a magical manufacturing pocket from which he can pull everything from flight ready helicopter hats to a camera the replicates in miniature whatever you photograph (except for people.) In the end I support his choice of name, despite the fact that changing your name from Thomas to Doraemon is like having the name GI Joe, deciding you’ve outgrown it and changing it to Optimus Prime, the truck from Transformers. I would have loved to just have the opportunity even if I did make a bad choice, so maybe Doraemon isn’t such a bad choice anyway. If he becomes a doctor and decides that his Chinese sir name is too difficult to pronounce, Dr. Doraemon really has a nice ring to it.