Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Normal, the Out-of-Context, and the Bizzare

On the first day of class for the semester, I have to be careful not to laugh when I make a list of the English names of my students.  We foreigners sometimes try to learn and use our Chinese friends and students’ names, but we rarely get the pronunciation just right—so many of them prefer we just use an English nickname rather than butcher their Chinese names.  English majors, especially, choose English names to use in class and with foreigners; I remember we used to do that in language classes too—my Spanish name was Catalina in high school.  

Overall, I think this is a good idea—it sure helps us teacher to learn their names and be able to keep records much more easily, and it helps the students to learn how to pronounce some English names.  The problem with it is that, apparently, students are not well-supervised when they are picking their names.  I keep wishing that I could teach some freshmen, so that I could guide them—or, rather, exercise the power of veto.  But, I teach sophomores, and most of them are already attached to the name they already have.  

Some of them make good choices of names—I have plenty of Alices, as well as Jessica, Charlie, Sarah, Lily, Lance, Natalie, Cassie, Daniel, and Lisa.  Chinese names are chosen for meaning,not sound, and many do the same in English, picking a name with a good meaning (happy, lucky, brave) without regard to the sound.  Some take the opportunity to do the opposite: choose a sound they like without considering the meaning, which they can't do in Chinese.  Other choose a name that sounds similar to their Chinese name: Lily for Li Li, Lucy for Lu, Joker for Jiao Kai.  Other identify themselves with a hobby or interest, taking a name from sports or TV.  Kobe was popular a couple of years back, as many of the boys are huge NBA fans;  Roger admires tennis star Roger Federer; Sheldon is popular this year (I have two) because of the TV show Big Bang Theory. 

 The next tier of names are proper names, but chosen out of context--the Chinese students  have no way of knowing which names were popular in which generation, or are currently in or out of fashion—so, I have Bertha, more than one Helen, Linda, Frances, Sharon, Ruth, Cindy, and Tina, which, while not unusual, are not that common for a nineteen-year-old.  Oddly enough, I also have two girls called Blanca.  One wouldn't be that odd; she just looked for a name that meant 'white' or something, but two? 

And then, just as I begin to think I finally have a class with good sense, we reach the bizarre.  There’s always one or two who just have to be “creative.”  How am I supposed to call on a student (male) named Dreamcatcher? Without laughing?  He’s probably the most interesting I have this term, but there’s also Apple, Echo, Ecco, Seldom, Cloris, Malak (female), Joker, and Armstrong.  So far, however, there are fewer outliers than I had in Jingzhou—but still. I’ve written before about the dilemma here—do I accept such names because, as it’s their name, it’s their free choice, or do I insist that they use proper names because most Americans are going to laugh at them? 


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