What’s in a Name?

Choosing a personal name is tough. If you are Taiwanese and have ever studied English, then most likely, you’ve been forced to choose an English name. It is less cultural imperialism and more the total inability of English speakers to remember and wrap their tongues around names like Hsieh Pi-hsia, Xiong Xizhe, or Huang Chia-wen. Generations of Taiwanese students have found themselves at the lowest point of their English ability trying to choose a name that doesn’t make them look like a dork. I’m sympathetic—but, still inclined to giggle at some of the results.

If the person doesn’t take some normal English name that they’ve found in the media, then their name choices can get innovative. This creativity tends to follow certain lines. The first is the gender bender name, a boy named Jennifer or a girl named Allan. Occasionally the student is actually pretty sophisticated and is making a comment on their gender role or sexual orientation. That’s the exception. Usually they simply don’t realize the gender of the name. Sometimes they’re motivated by other factors. I have a male friend named Judy, which is a pretty fair Romanization of his Chinese name, while still managing to be an inappropriate English name.

Since people don’t have much feel for English names, another common mistake is choosing a name that is dated sounding. There are many young guys here named Joseph, Arthur, Milton or Sam. The anachronistic names get really incongruous when you find yourself meeting sexy young women named Betsy, Ethel, Mildred or Beatrix. You start imagining your grandmother as a young hottie and it is all very disconcerting.

They are still better than the common practice of choosing a name from pop culture, often anime. I have had lots of students named Doraemon, Pokemon, or Fido Dido. It is a bit like naming yourself Foghorn Leghorn or Pillsbury Doughboy. Also derived from pop culture is the tendency for girls to give themselves porn names. They name themselves after hot girls in movies, without catching the name’s nuance. So Amber, Ginger, Jade and Jasmine are common. I have to admit, I like the last two for Asian girls.

Some of the names they come up with are really nice, despite, or because of, their unconventional nature. Many names have an accidental, or sometimes intentional, hippy-dippy feel. Some examples that have been common in Taiwan include Apple, Sky, Rainbow, Willow, Dove, etc. If your father named you Meadow, I might look askance, but as a self-chosen secondary name, some of these are really nice. Names based on a translation of one or more characters in the person’s Chinese name can be charming. The names Sunny or Bright are based on a possible translation of Ming (明) a common character in many Chinese names. I’ve met a lot of women named Sunny and find the name a charming allusion to their disposition.

That’s just background to some of the challenges Taiwanese face choosing a foreign name. As a teacher I meet hundreds of new students every year, and often find myself marveling at their names. I’d like to share my five favorite student names, culled from twenty plus years of teaching. I had one particularly energetic male student named Far Eastern Express. I freakin’ loved it! It was oddly appropriate and weird at the same time. If I have a son, his name shall be Far Eastern Express Haughn, also appropriate for a daughter. I taught a pair of brothers named Thestus and Fester. It is hard to believe, but the names suited them. One looked like Herman Munster and the other looked like, well,… Fester. There was a student who gave his name as Blues Willy. I thought it was brilliant. The Blues is underappreciated in Asia. I thought maybe he was a kindred spirit. It is hard to describe the small thrill it gave me to call on Blues Willy to answer a question. The name alone made him a favorite. Imagine how crushed I was at the end of the semester, when I asked him how he’d chosen his name, and he told me that he was a big fan of the Die Hard movies. He had been mispronouncing Bruce Willis.

By far my favorite student name was Harden.

Spelled H-A-R-D-O-N.

If ever there was someone who deserved that name it was Hardon. He was a thoroughly miserable student who quickly got his blood up over any little thing. Undoubtedly, he was named by a disgruntled English teacher who’d had to deal with Hardon’s turgid moods. He did a good job catching Hardon’s spirit in an English name. I considered changing the name, but in the end decided to let it stand, as it were.

He really was a hardon.