Despite China continuing to grow in power and influence, I worry that many people have yet to fully accept this reality. One area where this reluctance shows through is how uncomfortable many Westerners continue to feel when trying to pronounce or learn Chinese names. Feeling uncomfortable on its own can readily be forgiven – it is an unwillingness to try that really bothers me. Some are embarrassed when trying to pronounce unfamiliar words. Others insist that Chinese names are too hard to pronounce. It is therefore no surprise that one of the more common phrases one hears among those new to China is “do you have an English name?”
To many, learning how to pronounce a name may seem wholly unimportant in the grand scheme of things. However, it can easily relate to our own attitudes and prejudices, which will directly affect each of us as we continue to learn and grow. I’d therefore like to help you, the reader, understand why I feel learning Chinese names is so important, and will not only help develop closer relationships with our Chinese friends, partners, and coworkers, but also prepare us for China’s greater prominence in the global economy.
1) You’re in their country
I always feel that when visiting someone else’s country it’s best to learn a little of their language, if only how to pronounce basic words, questions, and names. Of course, you can always choose not to if you prefer, but many Asian countries, including China, focus a lot more on respect than their Western counterparts. Currently, in China it’s a common practice for visiting Westerners to take the easy path and rely solely on English names. But at the same time, making the effort to learn Chinese names and basic phrases will send a clear message to the Chinese, that you are serious about engaging with them and their country. And if that’s not enough, think about this – how would you feel if a Chinese person visited your country, and after you courteously introduced yourself, they flatly refused to use your native name and suggested you adopt a Chinese one instead? Therefore, while learning Chinese names may be difficult at first, it’s a simple way to show respect and interest, which can only lead to a better experience for all.
2) Don’t isolate yourself with an expat mentality
While I believe learning Chinese names, phrases, and greetings is ideal for Westerners visiting China, it is even more important for those planning a lengthier stay. In a previous article I wrote about the dangers of succumbing to an expat mindset, and refusing to learn basic Chinese can tie into this, only serving to further isolate you. Refusing (or even unconsciously avoiding) to learn Chinese names and language not only will make it harder for you to integrate into life in China, it may even prevent you from working effectively (assuming you work at least part of the time in China). Even worse, I have seen many Westerners develop a pronounced apathy and even hostility toward the Chinese people in general due to this type of isolation. For hundreds of years Chinese immigrants (and those from many countries) have relocated to Western countries, integrated themselves into the countries, and learned the local language. Is it really too much to ask for us to at least learn to pronounce Chinese names?
3) A name is a very personal thing
I touched briefly on racism and hostility above, and the sad truth of the matter is that the Chinese people have long suffered at the hands of other countries, most notably Western nations and Japan. My home country of the United States is particularly guilty in this respect, with Chinese (and Asians in general) still subjected to regular bigotry. A recent example of this occurred when unidentified persons tore the nametags off the doors of Chinese students at Columbia University in early 2017. While their exact motives were never confirmed, it was clear that their intent was to directly attack Chinese students, as nearby name tags of non-Chinese students remained untouched. Names are a very personal thing to the Chinese. Chinese parents choose names for their children with care, with the chosen words (characters, in fact) representing their hopes and dreams for who their children will become. I encourage you to watch this video created by the Chinese students involved affected by the incident – it may give you one more reason to learn how to pronounce and understand Chinese names.
After growing up in China and later emigrating to the USA, I found that many people did not know how to pronounce my Chinese name. The mispronunciation of my name has caused multiple embarrassments and miscommunication throughout my education. I even had to go so far as to begin writing my first name as “Ray”, as opposed to “Rui”, which is how it is spelled in Chinese Pinyin. Despite greater convenience this has never felt entirely conformable, as no one should have to give up their own name. – Rui Lin, Sino-US Trade Policy Specialist
4) We need to ditch Anglocentrism
Another reason we face a problem with Westerners being reluctant to learn Chinese names and use them in everyday conversations, is the rampant Anglocentralism which has persisted during and after the Western colonial era. Begun by Britain, and later joined by the United States, European countries, Russia, and Japan, the common view was that developing nations were somehow lesser, or not worthy (especially when their citizens were not Caucasian). In the time since, these citizens of developing nations and regions (e.g., China, Africa, South, and Latin America) have had to take on the burden of learning the languages of Western countries (namely English), while their Western counterparts have for the large part shown no interest in reciprocating. However, many developing countries, China in particular, are now set to take on a greater role, in terms of power and influence, on the global stage. Continuing to be ruled by outdated mindsets can only hurt those who hold them, as developing countries have no need to wait for Western mindsets to catch up. Focusing more on the importance of names to the Chinese is a simple way to start reversing the damages caused by Anglocentrism.
5) Preparing for Chinese companies going global
To build upon the previous point, China continues to develop, which includes many Chinese companies and workers traveling to and being based overseas. As their presence and power continues to grow, it is very likely that less and less leeway will be given to Western companies and employees who want to work with them but refuse to learn their language and culture. As an example, several years ago I observed that Tencent, the Chinese powerhouse behind WeChat, had placed job ads online for several US locations. For every single Manager or Assistant Manager position, Chinese language proficiency was required for regular communication with the head office. In addition, Chinese firms I have worked for in the past also mainly spoke Chinese in the office, and Chinese was essential while for communication with senior managers. So Chinese language proficiency may be all but required for many of us in the near future. Starting with learning Chinese names is a relatively easy first step, and may make it easier to learn more of the Chinese language, which can only lead to more opportunities.
I’ve presented several reasons above why I feel many Westerners should make a greater effort to learn Chinese names. And while these reasons certainly tie-in to the need for learning the Chinese language in general, the core issue is simpler than that to me. The biggest problem I see is not that other Westerners are not learning Chinese, but that their mindset prevents them from recognizing the need to learn about the Chinese language and culture.
Too many of us are still blind to the fact that China is challenging and/or surpassing Western countries in many areas, including economics, science, and technology. In the end, China will continue on no matter what we do. Whether or not we are individually prepared will directly depend on the mindset we adopt towards China and the Chinese people. Will we view them as equals and endeavor to treat them as such, or will we continue to ignore them as an unimportant country and culture? The choice is yours.
Additional Reading: For those of you interested in learning how to pronounce Chinese names, you can find some basic pronunciation guides in my previous article on Chinese Pinyin.
Thanks for reading!
Do you have any additional questions about names in China? Do you have any personal experiences you would like to share? Please feel free to post your thoughts in the comments section. You can also send a send a message directly to the author on social media.