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View Full Version : Why do chinese people get American names ?


andy_fl
01-24-2003, 01:31 PM
Only anecdotal evidence here, but I have come across many chinese people (living in the US) who have "American" names.

I have seen this especially wrt Chinese and much less so for people from other nations. Obviously, it is more convinient to have an American sounding name, but I then why is it that the Chinese are more likely to do so ?

Nametag
01-24-2003, 02:00 PM
Because Chinese names are particularly likely to get mangled by Americans, and because Chinese names get confused with other Chinese names -- in the Western ear, Western names stand out better.

bayonet1976
01-24-2003, 02:03 PM
Originally posted by andy_fl
Only anecdotal evidence here, but I have come across many chinese people (living in the US) who have "American" names.

I have seen this especially wrt Chinese and much less so for people from other nations. Obviously, it is more convinient to have an American sounding name, but I then why is it that the Chinese are more likely to do so ?

It's not just in the US. One of my wife's uncles was chinese by birth, he cubanized his chinese name, and every one of his kids had an equally Cuban first name, with a chinese last name.

kunilou
01-24-2003, 02:09 PM
I don't agree with your premise.

Are you talking about Chinese-born immigrants who took an English-language name when they came to the U.S., or are you talking about persons of Chinese ancestry?

If you're talking about U.S. born ethnic Chinese, it was not unusual for immigrants or their children to give their offspring English-sounding names, the better to fit in in the country. You just don't think of it that way with people of Spanish, German, Italian or Slavic descent.

As I have noted previously, Mrs. Kunilou's family came from Japan at about the same time mine came from Europe. The Midwestern branch all gave their kids English names, while the California branch mixed in some Japanese first names for some of their kids.

And of course, my grandparents gave all their children English first names.

Icarus
01-24-2003, 02:13 PM
At one time, I worked with an older Chinese couple named "Mike" and "Betty" Yee. They were college professors in China who had come to the USA as adults, and were reduced to working as unskilled office clerks.

Comes the day for "Mike" to retire. At his retirement party he gave this speech:

{heavy accent}
When I come to America, I know I need American name. So, I ask the first man I meet, "What is a good American name?"

He tells me. "Mike. Mike is a good American name."

But "Mike" is not a good name for me. Why? Because everywhere I go, people are calling out, "Mike! Mike!" I turn around but they don't want me, they want some other Mike.

So, after that, when I hear people calling out, "Mike! Mike!", I don't turn around. But they really want me, now they think I'm stuck up!

So, "Mike" is not a good name for me.

Shirley Ujest
01-24-2003, 02:33 PM
Ever notice, and this is possibly just my narrow observation, but every Asian that has Americanized his or her name seems to pick a name with an 'R' or 'L ' in it.?

Bwuce. Woberta. Erizabeff.


Which is all fine, as I am pretty sure my chinese name would be Moo Goo Gai Pan :D

The Controvert
01-24-2003, 03:39 PM
Why do American people choose weird names?
Only anecdotal evidence here, but I have come across many American people (living in China) who have names from Chinese menus.

I have seen this especially wrt Americans and much less so for people from other nations. Obviously, it is more convenient to have an Chinese sounding name, but I then why is it that the Americans pick words that seem to come from menus from Chinese restaurants in America?? :D

Seriously, it's because we want to fit in. I am one of those Chinese people who took an American name when I moved here. People here could not pronounce my Chinese name. If I hadn't switched, either I would have to suffer everyone's well-meaning but mangled pronunciation, or I would have to endlessly correct people. I do not enjoy correcting people over and over. Later, I changed the pronunciation of my last name from "Schweei" to "Soo", again to facilitate Western speakers. I think I have saved a non-trivial amount of time and effort by doing this.

I'm sure people in China would have trouble with a name such as "Shirley", and each time they made a special effort to struggle with your name, you are reminded that you are different. So, it's not much of a stretch to imagine someone preferring to go by "Moo Goo Gai Pan".

regnad kcin
01-24-2003, 04:04 PM
Um, Shirley, you and so many other Americans have this tendency to toss all Asians together into one big pile.

Many of the Asian nationalities are more different from each other than the European countries, and we would never throw Italians, French, and British into a single pile.

In fact linguists recognize several different major language groups in Asia, whereas excepting Feno-Hungarian (Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian) and the relatively small Basque-speaking population, Europe boast but one language group with three branches (I know, I know, Im forgetting Georgian, Latvian, et al. But we're kind of moving into western Asia there).

That being said, its the Koreans and Japanese who have trouble with "L" and "R". Chinese actually have an easier time (in my experience) learning the American "R" than most non-native English speaking westerners.

Chinese, however, have their own crop of problems.

bilgerat
01-24-2003, 04:32 PM
Actually, Japanese have no problem with "R" since it is part of their alphabet (e.g., "ramen" is a Japanese word), although it is a rolled-R like in Spanish. "L," on the other hand is not part of their alphabet so gets substituted with a rolled-R in most cases.

I think Chinese is the opposite with "L" being part of their alphabet, but not "R."

kimera
01-24-2003, 04:41 PM
Originally posted by bilgerat
Actually, Japanese have no problem with "R" since it is part of their alphabet (e.g., "ramen" is a Japanese word), although it is a rolled-R like in Spanish. "L," on the other hand is not part of their alphabet so gets substituted with a rolled-R in most cases.

I've actually heard it the other way around for Japanese. It depends on the person. I once dated a japanese guy who would pronounce his "r"s like "l"s.

Green Bean
01-24-2003, 05:03 PM
I think they do it because it's easier for everybody around them and it makes interactions easier. Not a bad idea, IMHO, if their original name is hard to pronounce. It probably aids in business and social interactions and makes it easier to make friends. If I moved to China or Korea or any place where people had serious trouble with my name, I'd probably do the same.

But I'd try to get some help picking it so I wouldn't end up with a name like General Tso's Chicken or something.

CrankyAsAnOldMan
01-24-2003, 05:09 PM
A question I've had along these lines is in regards to my observation that contrary to the anecdote above, "Mike" is not a common name for a child of immigrants. Here at Michigan, it seems as though a number of the Chinese or Chinese-American students who go by an English name have names that I consider classic and/or old-fashioned: Walter. Esther. Irene. Engelbert. Alice. Howard. Josephine. Susan. Grace. Eunice. Erwin. Albert.

Wondered why that was.

Ivar
01-24-2003, 05:20 PM
I've known people who worked in China who also "sino-ized" their names. Well, they took their American/European names and made a chinese name out of it by trying to match the syllables to the chinese language.

An acquaintances last name was Van Raijin, (sp?) an obviously Dutch sounding name. In chinese, she chose three characters that sounded approximate ... Fong Wai Jin, something like that. She chose it because of the specific meaning of the words, it translated back to english as something she liked.

did I explain that correctly at all?

The Controvert
01-24-2003, 05:23 PM
Originally posted by CrankyAsAnOldMan
...it seems as though a number of the Chinese or Chinese-American students who go by an English name have names that I consider classic and/or old-fashioned: Walter. Esther. Irene. Engelbert. Alice. Howard. Josephine. Susan. Grace. Eunice. Erwin. Albert.

Wondered why that was.

I'll take a wild stab at this. It's because people choose names they think sound classy and unique, to make them feel special.

Most Westerners would not know what a "normal" Chinese was, if they were trying to choose the equivalent of "Mike". They might end up choosing a more classical name, such as "Confucious", or they might pick a famous person such as "Yao Ming"... simply because they happen to be aware of these names, not that these are especially good choices.

regnad kcin
01-24-2003, 06:37 PM
Bilgerat:

Huh? The Japanese "r" isnt rolled. Where did you get THAT idea?

The Japanese ra ri ru re ro syllables are sort of between a single Spanish r (like pero, NOT the rolled perro), an l, and a d. Forced to say which one it sounded closest to I would have to say L.

As a native English speaker I have difficulty hearing the difference between a Japanese ra and da.

Id also like to point out that using L and R is an approximation from OUR perspective. To say that "Chinese is the opposite, with L being a part of their alphabet, but not R" is wrong. Wrong first of all because Chinese, like Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, etc etc doesnt use L or R at all, and second of all because (unlike other Asian languages) Chinese doesnt have any alphabet whatsoever! (This fact makes looking up a word in the dictionary a tricky task, requiring knowlege of character stroke number and order).

regnad kcin
01-24-2003, 06:51 PM
Cranky:

I dont know if this is the case at Michigan (UM, MU?) but where my girlfriend works -- a Japanese car parts manufacturer -- there are lots of Japanese businessmen. All of them take American names because 1) they feel Americans cant say their names correctly and 2) unlike in the US, very very very few people call them by anything but their "last" (family) names (nobody has mentioned this second reason for choosing American names, but I suspect it plays a role in some situations).

These Japanese businessmen take their names from a list of infrequently encountered American names -- some I have met are "Kent", "Neil", and "Max". The reason is so as not to take a name likely to be had by one of their American co-workers.

Ironically these guys, in the name of aiding communication with Americans, cant pronounce their "own" names! "Kento", "Niru", and "Makusu" to hear them say it.

MadScientistMatt
01-24-2003, 08:06 PM
Ironically these guys, in the name of aiding communication with Americans, cant pronounce their "own" names! "Kento", "Niru", and "Makusu" to hear them say it.

regnad kcin, I've encountered an even stranger problem - when I was taking classes in German, I couldn't pronounce my own name correctly when I was speaking German! It always came out as "Mot." I guess having to get my mind around a German accent made me apply it to everything, including words that were not German.

I work for a Japanese company, although I can't speak Japanese, but maybe I shed some light on the topic of Japanese accents. Japanese consonants are very different from English ones. They have one that seems to be midway between an r and an l, which does mean many native Japanese speakers have trouble pronouncing the two differently. It's equally hard for native English speakers to figure out some of the Japanese consonants; one example that I've picked up sounds sort of like a ygh. Most of the Japanese at the company I work for have not adopted Americanized first names.

Back to the original post, many generations of immigrants to America have Anglicized their names when coming here. It's just something we take for granted when it comes to white people, but many generations of Italians, Slavs, and other immigrants took more English sounding names too, and gave their children American sounding names. It just stands out more when we see Asians doing this.

Susanann
01-24-2003, 09:40 PM
Originally posted by Shirley Ujest
Ever notice, and this is possibly just my narrow observation, but every Asian that has Americanized his or her name seems to pick a name with an 'R' or 'L ' in it.?

Bwuce. Woberta. Erizabeff.


Which is all fine, as I am pretty sure my chinese name would be Moo Goo Gai Pan :D

And not many chinese will pick a name with an 'S' in it.

bilgerat
01-24-2003, 10:06 PM
Okay, maybe not a hard-rolled R like in Spanish, maybe more like in Italian? Like in riggotoni. None the less it is a rolled "R." I say this because I am Japanese, have an "R" in my last name (Harada), and have never had anyone of Japanese origin try to pronounce it as Ha-la-da. As for the "L" being substituted with an "R," I've seen enough Japanese imports listing the material name as "prastic" to know its true. :)

Of course there's no accounting for individual pronounciation. But my mother-in-law (from Japan) would beg to differ that your co-workers were unable to properly pronounce their Japanese names.

Back to the topic at hand, I agree that someone from a foreign country would have little insight into the naming trends here. Their frame of reference is usually the media (movies, TV, etc.) so you tend to get the classic names (James, Mike, Tony, Joe, Sally, Mary, etc...).

bilgerat
01-24-2003, 10:08 PM
And that would be "riggatoni", duh...

MadScientistMatt
01-24-2003, 10:14 PM
Bilgerat, I think it was that regnad kcin's co-workers were unable to pronounce their adapted American names. I'm the one who cannot pronounce his own name correctly when speaking in another language.

Urban Ranger
01-25-2003, 12:40 AM
[QUOTE]Originally posted by andy_fl
Only anecdotal evidence here, but I have come across many chinese people (living in the US) who have "American" names.

I have seen this especially wrt Chinese and much less so for people from other nations. Obviously, it is more convinient to have an American sounding name, but I then why is it that the Chinese are more likely to do so ?/QUOTE]

To be localised, so to speak. Do you know that expats here get Chinese names? It goes both ways.

Zagadka
01-25-2003, 03:19 AM
Semi-related, my grandparents named all their kids American names when they moved here, because they wanted them to be *Americans*, a big deal to them, carrying all the raised opportunity it meant when they moved here. They also raised them all to only speak English. This is coming from Mexico, and has culturally fallen out of use as the hispanic culture in the southwest exploded out since they moved here, but nonetheless...

On the other hand, when I am speaking in Russian, I use a different name because my given name is too "complicated" in Russian. I find it easier to use something that fits easier. Well, I also hate my given name, but that's beside the point. ;-)

Koxinga
01-25-2003, 03:59 AM
I think you all are giving the "immigrant wanting to fit into society" theory a little too much credit. Fluency in English is a big status symbol in most of Asia--at least, in the Greater China/Overseas Chinese community that spans the entire Pacific Rim. A Taiwanese businessman has a little more face when negotiating with his (say) South Korean partner if he comes across as a worldly English-speaking fellow, and an English name adds to that. It has very little to do with immigration, as far as I've ever been able to tell.

(Nowadays in Taiwan, a lot of parents give their kids English names practically from birth.)

Koxinga
01-25-2003, 04:02 AM
Another thing--I've been told that Japanese are typically atrocious at trying to pronounce Chinese names (and generally atrocious at trying to pronounce any foreign language, really). I've known some Chinese working with Japanese who deliberately adopted English names in order to make it easier for them.

Dreaming of Maria Callas
01-25-2003, 05:29 AM
Originally posted by regnad kcin
Wrong first of all because Chinese, like Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, Thai, Laotian, etc etc doesnt use L or R at all, and second of all because (unlike other Asian languages)

As a Chinese speaker, I can definately tell you that Chinese has "r", and it pretty close to the pronunciation of the letter in American English. Common terms like "dang ran" (of course) "rongyi" (easy) and "erduo" (ear) all include "r." Speakers from Beijing are infamous for putting an r into many words, many "yi dian" ("a little") "yi dianr" and "shang tou" (on top) "sharng tou".

Because this "r" sound is quite similar to the sound in American English, the racist stereotype that all Chinese mangle r's and l's forming words like "flied lice" is quite inaccurate.

UnuMondo

jjimm
01-25-2003, 05:39 AM
Chinese people in Hong Kong regularly take Western names. I'm sure it began as convenience for dealing with unlinguistic Westerners, but has become a trend.

The name is used thus: Western name Family name Chinese name. E.g. James Chan Man Ying

They often choose a Western name for themselves in adolescence, which occasionally leads to some odd choices: "Andeley" was a popular one when I lived there (which was the bastardized spelling of "Andrew" by Andeley Chan, a well known triad who was gunned down in Macau). Lots of teenage boys chose this. I have a friend who calls herself Canary, and I also met a Creamy Cheung, and a Twinkle Ling. There are also reports of a Winky Wong, Murder Chan, Stalin Yeung, and Benweird Ma.

sailor
01-25-2003, 05:43 AM
UnuMondo, I agree that there is an exageration but the Chinese r is not pronounced like an English r but more like halfway between R and L and so it is natural that we hear it as an L. Note that the stereotype also exists in other languages, so it is not like it is made up. Conversely, it is not easy for a foreigner to correctly pronounce the chinese R because we have no sound like it. I still remember one of the first words I had difficulty with was renmin (people) because it is everywhere in China. The people's this, the people's that, etc.

And to add to the thread: I also use a Chinese nickname when I am in China because it is easier for them to pronounce.

whisky coke
01-25-2003, 10:20 AM
Originally posted by Green Bean
[B]I think they do it because it's easier for everybody around them and it makes interactions easier. Not a bad idea, IMHO, if their original name is hard to pronounce. It probably aids in business and social interactions and makes it easier to make friends. If I moved to China or Korea or any place where people had serious trouble with my name, I'd probably do the same.


Sometimes different people pronounced my chinese name differently when I lived in England.

regnad kcin
01-25-2003, 10:55 AM
Uno, I never said that Chinese didnt have an R sound, but that it didnt have the letter "R".

I was refuting someone who had posted that Japanes had R but not L and Chinese had L but not R. My point was that L and R are approximations, especially when dealing with languages that dont use the Roman alphabet.

In fact I said in an earlier post that, in my experience as an ESL instructor, Chinese people have less difficulty with the American "R" than most Europeans.

Let me also say that I find the letter "R" to be a really weird letter. Many western languages consistently transform one sound into another sound (B to V, T to TH(theta), K to G etc etc) and change the spelling to match. But the letter R seems to represent so many different sounds, yet consistently keeps its written representation. When French, Italian, Brazilian, German, and American people see "R" they think something different, whereas when these same people see "M" or "T" or "F" they think pretty much the same thing.

Just ask a Frenchman, and Italian, a Brazilian, a German, and an American to pronounce the Brazilian city "Rio" for example.

Or maybe Im just reading too much into this.

Crowbar of Irony +3
01-25-2003, 10:58 AM
In some Asian countries, when a Chinese became a Christian he may got a Christian (aka 'Western') name from his pastor. That how I got mine.

Second, during the last decade or so the 'international language' was English. To able to trade with the western countries a lot of Chineses have to learnt English and probably see the merits of getting a western name. I also agree with the idea of 'fitting in' and it is easier for westerners to recall and to pronounce western name. (I remember the days when a New Zealand lecturer was tutoring my class. He got most of our names wrong!)

Third, it is easier to remember and somehow look more 'professional' on paper. I once was one of the sales representives of an e-learning course. I put my Chinese name on the brochure and the other put his Western name. Guess what? He got all the calls and I got none...so there went my comission.

Fourth, it is something akin to "fashion". Most of our Chinese elders here attribute it to the "Following western trends". On top of the fact that many Chinese families here are English educated, so they probably got western names right from birth (especially among Chinese Christians here. 'Here', incidentally, means Singapore)

Hope this helped...

SnugTheJoiner
01-26-2003, 02:14 AM
The Chinese languages are tonal languages. The same syllable, pronounced in slightly different tones, can mean several different things. Westerners, as a rule, are entirely tone-deaf to these subtleties, because a change in tone in a Western language does not change the literal meaning of a word.

I suppose that some Chinese immigrants adopt Western-language nicknames because a name meaning "Pear Blossom" might come out "Toilet Brush" when spoken by a tone-deaf Westerner. (Not an actual example, just illustrative.)

Once I asked a friend from China why he'd chosen "Jeff" as his American name. It didn't sound even vaguely like his original name. He responded with an answer as old as Adam:

"Because I LOOK like a Jeff. Don't I?"

And he was right. He did.

Urban Ranger
01-26-2003, 04:04 AM
Originally posted by jjimm
I have a friend who calls herself Canary, and I also met a Creamy Cheung, and a Twinkle Ling. There are also reports of a Winky Wong, Murder Chan, Stalin Yeung, and Benweird Ma.

Murder is bad, other's are just dumb. There are names such as Pinky and Queenie, and I have even seen an Idiot and a Criminal. ::ack::

Urban Ranger
01-26-2003, 04:07 AM
Originally posted by regnad kcin
Uno, I never said that Chinese didnt have an R sound, but that it didnt have the letter "R".

There are no letters in Chinese, it is not a phonetic language. So yes, there is no letter "R" in Chinese, but it's like saying "apple" is not a colour.

psychonaut
01-26-2003, 10:34 AM
Originally posted by SnugTheJoiner
The Chinese languages are tonal languages. The same syllable, pronounced in slightly different tones, can mean several different things. Westerners, as a rule, are entirely tone-deaf to these subtleties, because a change in tone in a Western language does not change the literal meaning of a word.I take it you do not consider Swedish and Norwegian to be Western languages, then?

Originally posted by bilgerat
Actually, Japanese have no problem with "R" since it is part of their alphabet (e.g., "ramen" is a Japanese word), although it is a rolled-R like in Spanish. "L," on the other hand is not part of their alphabet so gets substituted with a rolled-R in most cases.My take on the problem, based not on any personal knowledge of Japanese but rather on what I was taught about it in a phonetics/phonology course, is that the English /r/ and /l/ sounds are allophonic in Japanese. That is, both the sounds (or sounds close thereto) exist in the language, but the speakers do not differentiate between them. The situation is analogous to the english /l/ in "lip" and "call"; in each word, the /l/ sound is pronounced differently, though most people are not aware of it. If you were to pronounce "call" with the /l/ sound as found in "lip", it might sound funny, but you would be perfectly understood since the meaning of the word does not change. English speakers might have a hard time learning or pronouncing a foreign language where the two sounds are distinct and can therefore signal a difference in word meaning.

Wendell Wagner
01-26-2003, 02:00 PM
Urban Ranger writes:

> There are no letters in Chinese, it is not a phonetic language.
> So yes, there is no letter "R" in Chinese, but it's like
> saying "apple" is not a colour.

Um, sort of. The standard way of writing Chinese is with characters, so it's more or less true to say that it's not an alphabetic language. There are several ways to write Chinese with ordinary roman characters, and one of them has been chosen by the government of China as the standard way to romanize the language. It's called Pin Yin, and many Chinese know it. (I don't know whether a majority of the population of China know it.) Saying that Chinese is not a phonetic language makes it seem like it doesn't use phonemes or maybe that it isn't transmitted as sound. The only sort of language fitting that description is sign language.

Koxinga
01-26-2003, 06:56 PM
Originally posted by Urban Ranger
Murder is bad, other's are just dumb. There are names such as Pinky and Queenie, and I have even seen an Idiot and a Criminal. ::ack::

Blame the English teachers. (http://boards.straightdope.com/sdmb/showthread.php?postid=354771&highlight=anus+chang#post354771)