What’s In a Name? For Chinese Students, Home, Freedom and Identity

To some people, she’s a beautiful girl standing on a boat. To others, she’s a parrot.

But Chinese student Yiling Huang – or Polly, as she was once known to some – cringes at the difference.

“I‘ve forbidden my friends from calling me by my English name because it sounds so weird. Some of them say it makes me seem like an animal or a bird. I don’t think it represents who I am at all. I think my real name has a much more beautiful meaning – beautiful girl standing on a boat with some windows – and it reminds me of the whole life I’ve spent in China. It delivers the message ‘this is the real me.’”

Yiling is one of a growing number of Chinese students who have chosen to buck tradition and refuse to adopt what is usually called an ‘English name’ that would be easier for Westerners to pronounce.

“It’s a movement becoming viral on Chinese social media now – ‘don’t use your English name.’ Many Chinese now say, ‘if they can pronounce ‘Tchaikovsky’ or ‘Schwarzenegger,’ then why can’t they pronounce ‘Kuan-Ling,’” says Kuan-Ling Liu, another student from China who spent her whole life back home being called by her English name, Amy.

“I have always loved Western music and Western pop culture and I even dressed in a Western way, so I’ve always been known as Amy. But when I went to London to study and then came to America, I started to question why I use this use this ‘Amy’ thing. My name is not that hard to pronounce, so if you prefer ‘Amy,’ you just want to be lazy.”

Ever since she became an international student, Kuan-Ling says she’s been struggling to hold on to her culture. The distance from home, as well as the immersion in a foreign way of life, has forced her to appreciate the parts of her that are inextricably linked to her childhood and her upbringing.

“I want to keep the Chinese parts of me. I am a little superstitious and a little quirky in Chinese ways, and I want to stay that way. And ‘Kuan-Ling’ makes me feel close to who that person is and unique here. Amy is my supermarket name. It’s so common.”


And Yue Shi, another student from China whose English name is “Ashley” agrees. “When I use my Chinese name, it conveys more depth – depth of meaning, depth of my identity, depth of my culture. Because ‘Ashley’ is just a kind of an entry code to a foreign environment. But ‘Yue Shi’ means ‘happiness’ – it was given to me by my grandfather and I really like the meaning it conveys, because in my family, I do play the role of the one giving happiness.”

But while Yue Shi and Kuan-Ling and Yiling Huang are still struggling with being stuck between their two names and identities, Tian Lu, who was never forced to pick a Western name by his school, says the decision not to choose one when he came as a graduate student to the United States was easy. “Why should I choose an alternative to the name my culture and my family gave me?” he shrugs.

But for some others, having a name not tied to their family’s decision allowed them the flexibility to change it if they liked – and that made their second identity an easier fit.

Yue Shi says that even though “Ashley” feels to her like a mantle she dons for the Western world, at least it’s a mantle she picked herself.

“It’s a funny story. In my high school, we were told to pick an English name from a dictionary, and I picked one I thought seemed innocent and pure – ‘Holly.’.But after I entered university, I found out that adding my last name, Shi, makes it ‘Holly Shi’ which sounds like ‘Holy shit.’ So I decided to change my name to ‘Ashley.’And I like it better.”

And Xuan Chen, whose first English name was Alice, says she decided to change it in middle school because she was bored of seeing so many girls named Alice. “It’s kind of a regular name, and everyone had it.”

But one day, she happened to watch the film “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” on television, and fell in love with the name.

“I still feel much closer to people when they call me ‘Xuan Chen.’.But I like ‘Rebecca’ for my Western self. I think it fits who I am here.”

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