Since starting to work for Huawei, I have learned something about Chinese names and English names. I am sure I there is a great deal more to know! I have even acquired a Chinese name of my own:
丁凯笙 ( in simplified Chinese) which sounds like Dickinson
Ding – 丁 – a real Chinese last name
Kai – 凯 – means glory or victory
Sheng – 笙- a type of Chinese instrument made of vertical pipes
My husband John Plocher’s Chinese name is:
蒋伯乐 (in simplified Chinese)
Jiang or Chiang – 蒋 – which sortof sounds like John
Buo Le – 伯乐 – which is a historical Chinese name and sounds like Plocher (if you don’t speak German)
How Chinese names sound and what they mean matters. My advisers in these matters said it was important to pick a homophone of my name in English. I can not just use my full birth name because it is hard to say and impossibly long by Chinese standards: in addition to my nickname of Katy, I have a three formal names of three syllables each! So, we settled on trying to find a Chinese name that could stand in for my surname only. Despite much discussion, I still ended up in some controversy because while the Chinese name I picked sounds good and has a positive meaning, it does not sound feminine enough. I like it anyway.
Americans often pick names for their children to honor a relative or refer to a famous person, or just because it sounds good. English names often seem to be chosen by Chinese because they (sortof) sound like the person’s original name in Chinese. English names are used by Chinese speakers to make it easier for non-Chinese-speakers to pronounce and remember. Also, having an English name saves them from hearing us mangle the pronunciation of their Chinese name.
One of my coworkers at Huawei in Santa Clara, California, picked the English name Michael. I do not think he considered that the name had an origin but Michael was interested to know that his is the name of the angel who is the general of the armies of God. My next-door-office-neighbor Olivia was interested to find out that her name was coined by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night (1601). Another co-worker was fascinated to find that three American women he knows whose English names sound very different to him (Katy, Kate, and Kathy) are using nicknames and all three share the same first name: Katherine. The concept of nicknames in English does not seem to translate well into Chinese. I used to work with a woman whose American birth certificate bears the name Suzie – because that was the only American name her newly-arrived-from-China parents knew. They did not know it was a nickname for Susan.
My favorite English name story is from my recent trip to Shenzhen, China. The staff I was working with generously took turns driving me to and from my hotel since it was so very hot and I get lost easily. One evening, Cheryl (whose real name is Tautau) said that my driver would be Lucy. I glanced around for a someone whose name might be Lucy, ignoring the energetic young man standing next to Cheryl, who then threw up his hands and proclaimed “I am the Lucy – man!” Since changing English names does not seem to be a big problem in China, I suggested that he might want to call himself Luke to reduce confusion.
English names for people from China, and Chinese names for Americans working with China, seem to be picked using the same criteria as picking a coffee name or a username – pronunciation and memorability are key.