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September 13, 2009

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A matter of not just by any other name ...

WHAT'S in a name? It's a simple question with elaborate answers that can fill books, if not libraries. Just for starters, think of family heritage, national culture, public honor, personal pride and inheritance.

We are born with family names and there's not much we can do about that. Parents decide our given names so we are too young to have a say.

But in China, there's a fluid, free market in choosing an English name. And the monikers young Chinese people take, and why, is the subject of a book by a couple of Dutch authors who did the research while they were working and studying in Shanghai.

The idea for "In China, My Name Is" came to authors Valerie Blanco and Ellen Feberwee when they were struck by the prevalence of mainly young Chinese adopting English names, not just as nicknames but for everyday use.

So they traipsed around Shanghai interviewing and photographing Chinese people across the age spectrum to learn the reasons behind name selections and, in some cases, why people weren't interested in an English name.

"We had the most wonderful conversations and had the privilege to meet great people," in bustling Shanghai's back alleys, markets, parks, schools and office buildings, they say in the book's introduction.

"We learned about Chinese culture, the language and its people. Most were curious to talk to us. Some were shy ... but then opened up. A few walked on ... several just giggled."

Ellen, 24, and Valerie, 27, met when they were studying concepts and brands at the Amsterdam Fashion Institute. The friendship firmed up in Shanghai when each moved here for different reasons.

Valerie arrived mid-study because her husband was posted into a job. She finished studies, interned at a Chinese design management company then worked for a local lifestyle brand, leaving the city in 2007 for Denmark.

Ellen moved to Shanghai after graduation and studied further at Tongji University's School of Economics and Management, leaving last year to work for Heineken in the Netherlands.

The idea for the book - published earlier this year - came from their immersion in the city's culture.

"We often talked about the things we saw, read or heard; what kind of people are the Chinese, what do they like, how do they live. We wanted to capture this information so we came up with the idea to walk around different parts of the city, take photographs and talk to people," they said in a joint interview.

So they "hit the streets" to ask a simple question: "Do you have an English name?" in their most basic Chinese.

"From there on we had the most wonderful conversations and the streets just kept on calling us for more."

They spoke with Chinese from several provinces, from poor street workers, to visitors to the Millionaires' Fair, monks and students, collating about 200 interviews. The authors believe that with the opening-up of China, language difficulties arose as a result of Westerners' difficulties with pronouncing the language.

"For foreigners, these mistakes can make for hilarious moments but for Chinese it can often be insulting toward the culture or even considered a personal slight," they said. "Chinese people regard the choice of names as extremely important since (they) represent powerful associations and symbolism."

The women found that easier communication with foreigners was one of the main reasons why Chinese people adopted English names but it also reflected a shift toward people "showing off" their status in society.

"Having an English name shows that you are part of the new class in China: you probably went to university, can be considered fashionable or are expected to work as a high-paid 'white collar' in one of the large foreign multinationals," they found.

But not everybody chooses an English name. The authors discovered that while the young urban generation is the largest group that adopts English names - because they have been exposed to stronger Western influences - traditional thinkers who may have foreign friends don't feel the need to have an English name and regard their personal identity as more important.

They found that the choice of an English name by Chinese is based on what important people - like family, friends and teachers - thought of how a name would fit their personality.

Some adopted a name picked jointly by these people; others took what was selected by an English class teacher or foreign manager.

"People want to be an individual and express themselves but within their social group they want to be respected. We experienced the largest group who is adopting (an English name) is the younger generation in big cities," they said.

"They are more modern than previous generations and are used to influences from the Western world. We learned that a difference between Chinese who do or don't have an English name is their background.

"The farmers in the countryside, for example, don't have an English name. When they come to the city to find work, they are not seen as part of the local society. Therefore they don't really integrate in modern life.

"English names are also more informal than Chinese names. We noticed that English names can be used for different occasions ... by friends or only during work at an (international) office."

The authors believe the decision to take an English name is "one of the symbols of a modern generation that is showing a growing sense of individualism."


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