What’s in a name?

March 15 2021 - Exploring different Cultures, Living the expat life

Anyone who has ever worked with Chinese people in an international setting might recognize the habit of Chinese taking on an international name. They introduce themselves as Crystal or Jack while in fact their Chinese name is Wang Li or Huang Ming. The reason they do this is quite simple: in an international environment which is still dominated by mostly western oriented names, Crystal or Jack is probably easier to understand and remember.
Many of our Chinese friends have taken on an international name. When we ask how they got to pick their name, the answers are very different. Some have chosen the name purposefully, because the sound resembles their Chinese name (Li becomes Lili). Others have picked the name from their favorite movie (Luke as in Luke Skywalker) or just because it represents something they value for it’s beauty: Rose. And in some cases the name was just picked randomly by their teacher.
But it’s not only the Chinese who adjust or change their name to fit in an international setting. Many people around the globe do the same. It facilitates an easy interaction across borders.

When we started traveling we also encountered some challenges with our names. Especially Hendrik Willem proved to be a long and somewhat complex name to get across when abroad. While back in the Netherlands his friends had already shortened this to his family name Flier, this option seemed to get lost in translation abroad. And so whenever we were traveling, Hendrik Willem adapted his name to a shorter version: “Hendrik”. And in Dubai “Hendrik” became “Hendo” for his football mates, since “HENDO” is obviously an easier shout on the field than “HENDRIK”.
My name usually did not give too much confusion. Especially in the Arab world it was easily recognized as similar to Mariam or Maryam. Although spelled wrong quite often, it was pronounced reasonably well.

In China the first thing people ask me is how to pronounce my name. Hendrik is seen as an easy name here, but Mirjam… the combination of i, r and j is just downright confusing. And so I hear all kinds of pronunciations, and sometimes they decide to just mumble something quickly, like “Mjam”.
So when my friend Louisa offered to pick a Chinese name for me, I did not have to think twice. My only condition…. I should be able to pronounce it myself!

And so, I proudly and happily inform you that I have been given a Chinese name: 玫雅 (pronounce Méi yǎ).
The first character means flower or rose, the second character stands for elegance. So there you go, I am named after an elegant rose. There are worse names to be given! And best of all, it resembles my original name a bit. Ok, perhaps like the way my sister pronounced it when she was a 3 year old with a baby sister, but I like it!

Last week I made a great trade-off with my new students: they can call me 玫雅, if I can call them by their international names. A creative 15 minutes later we all sat proudly behind our new name plates.
Cultural learning at it’s best!

Wekend Suzhou. New name, same person.