What is your Chinese name?

May 10, 2013
Beijing

What is your “Chinese name?”.  That question hit me squarely between the eyes with a DING! and made me realize for the first time that we were really moving to a ‘foreign’ country.  Many of us have heard the stand-up comedian Russell Peter tease Chinese people about their adopted Biblical names like John and David. “Come on, what’s your REAL name?”, he will chuckle and ask. The Chinese person he’s picked on will grin and/or squirm and respond with a traditional Chinese name like Qing Hai or Xiao Yu.  Well, the Chinese people ask the same question back to us about our Chinese name, but in all seriousness!

The first time we saw this question, we were filling out an application form for our move to China. Two fields: ‘Name’ and ‘Chinese Name’, just staring at us in all seriousness.  Sitting at home in Virginia, USA, our first reaction was, “What the …?” Next, we decided to look up our Chinese names using online translators. That was a fun evening! According to web-based translators, my Chinese name is 斯米塔, which is really three Chinese characters that when read  together sound something like Si-mi-ta. If you try translating them together from Chinese to English using Google translate, it will correctly return my name (Smita). I have no idea why this works! Because individually, the characters mean something completely different — Republika, Meter, and Tower respectively. Somehow, the Meter-high Tower of Republika in Chinese translates to ‘Smita’ in English.

Now that we have been in Beijing for a couple of months, it seems normal that an application form would have the two fields for a person’s name. Many Chinese people have both Chinese names as well as English, Biblical names. The form we were filling out was obviously leaving room for that very common situation.

But we were in for another surprise after we moved here. This dichotomy, or should I say binomiality (made that word up but you know what I mean), extends not just to people but also to places! We are not talking local names for vegetables and fruits, which is to be expected. We are talking names of places. For example, people ask me, “Where are you from?” I say “America”. Blank look.  I say “US”. Blank. “USA?” Blank. Finally figured out that America in China goes by the Chinese name Meiguo! Similarly, India is Yindu.  Of course then, China has a Chinese name too; it’s Zhongguo. This took the cake though.  When we moved in, we were told that the name of our building is Palm Springs. That’s what it says on the gate in big letters and it is supposedly a landmark. Okay then! However, I’ve tried to say that name to taxi drivers, or to delivery guys from the store in my own neighborhood, many times, r-e-a-l  s-l-o-w… nobody gets it.  One day early on, after much gesticulating and drawing diagrams on my part and blank looks on the other end about where I live, a delivery guy carrying my groceries and walking home with me (yes, they will do that here!) looks at our building and goes “Ah … Zonglu Quan”.  That was another “What the …?” moment! As it turns out, even the building has another, Chinese name! And that’s what everyone who is local uses.  The Chinese name for Palm Springs is Zonglu Quan, which is a literal translation of ‘Palm’ and ‘Springs’. Now I know that, but I still cannot catch a cab home by saying it, because you have to use the right tones for each syllable, and the right sound for each letter which looks like English but does not always sound as expected. For example, the letter ‘q’ is pronounced as ‘ch’ and ‘z’ as ‘j’. That is a whole other story!

Staying with names, while Chinese businesses will often have an English name and a Chinese name, foreign business names simply get ‘translated’ to Chinese characters that when spoken together sound somewhat familiar, and you can guess that it’s probably the same business. For example, the Chinese characters for Walmart sound something like Wol-mer, and Metro is translated to characters that sound like Met-Du-Lon (try saying it fast and it will sound okay).  In other words, for foreign businesses or names, the meaning is not translated, only the sounds are clubbed together to produce a similar sound!

I wonder, do those Chinese characters mean 'Punjabi' or do they just sound like 'Punjabi'

I wonder, do those Chinese characters mean ‘Punjabi’ or do they just sound like ‘Punjabi’?

Luckily, streets only have one name. Unluckily, it’s a Chinese name. Good luck saying it to a driver and being understood!! But a work-around is in place. Directions to most businesses come with a Chinese address, printed in Chinese, on a “Taxi Card”. This taxi card has the address in Chinese as well as a phone number. It is standard practice to get into a car, make some hesitant Chinese sounding noises, and hand the taxi card to the driver who will then proceed to call the business for detailed directions.  You can also get a Taxi book that has the critical phrases for giving directions written in both Chinese and English. You can either point them out to the driver, or if you are feeling bold about your Chinese pronunciation after a few baijius (the local Chinese wine 40-60% alcohol!) you could try saying them out loud. And of course, there is the very handy Google Translate phone/web app that no foreigner should arrive in China without. All foreigners who do business in China also carry two-sided business cards with one side in English, the other in Chinese — their name, address, everything translated to Chinese.

So, if a Chinese person asks you, “What is your Chinese name?” they are not kidding. Remember, the next time you catch a Russell Peter show, ask him, “Hey Russell, what’s your Chinese name?”. You can bet he has one!

♦ —————————— ♦

May 13, 2013

Was discussing this concept with a Portuguese friend who has lived in Beijing for two years now.  She regaled me with even more interesting examples of this phenomenon! Apparently, even internationally famous people do not escape the Chinification of their names. If you use their regular given names, the local people do not know who you are talking about. For example, many people know a famous singer called Mah-doh-nuh; but Madonna? Forget about it! Ms. Britney Spears has been graced with the much more interesting sounding Chinese name Bullani Sipiersi. And my friend’s fellow Portuguese native, superstar footballer Cristiano Ronaldo, she tells me is known in China by the Chinese name Silo! This last one she actually seemed upset about.

♦ —————————— ♦

 



Categories: China, Expat in Beijing, Far East, Travel

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Great essay, thanks. But I wonder how different it would be for a Chinese person, who does not know a word f english visiting th US ! At least in china they are making an effort to help those who do not know Chinese. But what are we doing for those who do not know English? About 20% of humans cn communicate in Chinese language, may be close to those who can understand and talk English!

    • Gita, I think the English language enjoys a more international appeal thanks to the English Empire that was spread so globally. The Chinese want to learn English and Anglicize their businesses/appearance to appeal to Westerners and to integrate globally. I don’t believe we can say the same in return about Chinese language in the US. For most foreign languages, there are interpreters at critical places like hospitals. Right?

  2. A revelation. So the Chinese name is not the nick name that we Indians are used to? Thankfully, the Google translator didn’t provide meanings that would embarass you, unlike many of the ‘daaknaams’ that our parents have mercilessly thrown upon us – Chotu and Bittu and Gobla!

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