Chinese people, English names

Most Chinese young people, and some of the not-so-young people, have English names, apart from their official Chinese names which appear in their identity cards. Lots of them choose their English name (or their teacher chooses it for them) when they start studying English. The reason? Supposedly Chinese names are too complicated to pronounce by foreigners, so it’s better to make things easier for them and just use an English name. In my office we have a Jessica, a Sherry, an Elaine, a James… (Interestingly enough, I have three colleagues which grew up in Spain. None of them have an English or Spanish name, they used their Chinese name when they were living in Spain and I guess they had no problem at all). Foreign students also choose a Chinese name when they come to study in China (or their teacher chooses one for them) as for some Chinese it is hard to remember/pronounce foreign names (and I guess they also find amusing that a blue-eyed blonde girl is called 小李 or whatever).

Choosing a name in a language that it is not your mother tongue can be complicated. Each culture has specific norms for choosing a person’s name. For example, in my home country, Spain, names are chosen from a preexistent names list (traditionally, names taken from the Bible or saints’ names), almost no one would just make up a name for their baby. In the Philippines they are much more creative and they do make up names. And what abour China? Here there is not a preexistent names list. Parents just choose whatever character(s) they like, normally one or two, and create a name for their baby. Does it sound easy? Well, it’s not! In China there are even professional baby namers (yes, that is a job!) that can help parents choose an auspicious name. Even the tone of the characters has to be taken into account: an Etymology teacher I had in Beijing explained us that she would never use a character with a fourth tone in a baby’s name. Why? Because the fourth tone is descending (`, it goes down) and she believed it would bring bad luck to the baby.

Another problem for Chinese parents when choosing a name is that it is difficult to avoid that there are a hundred kids, or more, with the exact same name as your child. In China there are not many surnames (Wikipedia has the list of the 100 most common Chinese surnames, which account for 85% of the population in China) and now everybody wants to be unique and original, so Chinese parents have to put their brains (and dictionaries) to work and find not-so-common characters to give their baby an exclusive name. There are people who have such unusual characters in their names that they can’t be written on the computer.

But I digress. What I wanted to write about today was about the English names Chinese people choose. These names are not only used in school, but also during their professional life. Even in purely Chinese companies, people like using their English names in their e-mail addresses and signatures; they also print business cards with their English name on it (business cards in China usually have two printed sides, one in Chinese and one in English).

It seems some Chinese people didn’t pay much attention to their English lessons, or maybe they didn’t follow their English studies after their compulsory school subject. Those might be the reasons some people choose names that are peculiar, to say the least.

So these are the weirdest English names that I have come across in China:

Banana. Well, Banana was supposed to be a Spanish name (we also say banana in Spanish). She was a Chinese girl who studied Spanish in Beijing Foreign Studies University and was looking for a language exchange. My friend Anna and I tried to convince her to change it but she thought it was a cool name. There is a song in Spanish that says “the only love fruit is the banana” (am I the only one seeing the sexual connotations?) and we couldn’t stop singing it. And there’s also the fact that “banana” can be used to describe a person that looks Asian (yellow) on the outside but it is Western (white) on the inside (for example, an American born Chinese).

Demon. Demon was a girl from Sichuan that I met in Taiwan. She even uses Demon as her nickname in Wechat. I wonder who fooled her to choose that name, because she couldn’t speak a word of English.

Calaja. He is a new guy in my company. What kind of name is Calaja? Is it a bastardization of Callahan? Did he make it up himself?

Hermit. Hermit was a salesman (or woman, I have no idea) from some company and s/he sent me an e-mail with a business proposal. I didn’t know hermits had internet access in their caves in the mountains!

Mr. Abalon.  He included “mr” in his e-mail signature, maybe to let people know that he was a man. I guess Mr. Abalon likes eating seafood, as the only thing I can think of that might have inspired his name is 鲍鱼, which is translated as abalone in the English menus of Chinese restaurants.

I'm not a big fan of abalone.

I’m not a big fan of abalone.


There is a video from Sexy Beijing about this topic:

The reporter asks random people in the street if they have English names or not, and she finds very unusual names, like Samanfar (“it sounds better than Samantha”) or Smacker. The video is very entertaining, not only because of the replies she gets but also because it looks kind of old, even though it was filmed just 8 years ago. But there are some things that haven’t changed in Beijing’s summer, like the old guys with the rolled up shirts showing their bellies!


Have you met any Chinese people with unusual English names? You can leave a comment and tell us about it!