Chinese Students Pick Fantasy English Names

Many Chinese students choose an English name when they start to learn the language. The choice of names often involves flights of fancy, a desire to invent an alter ego. And they can be easier to remember for American reporters.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

You can pick your friends, but few people get to pick their own names. Most of us inherit something our parents chose, that is, unless you're an English language student in China. NPR's Larry Abramson has this Reporter's Notebook.

LARRY ABRAMSON: A confession. I have a terrible memory for names. In the U.S. that's a big embarrassment for a reporter, a profession where few skills matter more. In China I was hopeless.

Ms. MENG NIN XI: My name is Meng Nin Xi.

Ms. DONG JIAN: Dong Jian, my Chinese name. Dong Jian.

ABRAMSON: Jian.

Ms. JIAN: Jian.

ABRAMSON: Jian.

Mr. GWAN LI LEUNG: Leung, Gwan Li Leung.

Ms. SHI NIAW LEUNG: Shin Shi Niaw Leung.

ABRAMSON: And trust me, it doesn't help much when those names are written down. It's a shame, really, because Chinese names are often plucked right from a gorgeous landscape.

Ms. YAN XU: Yan Xu, Y-A-N X-U. Yan Xu; sunshine, maybe.

ABRAMSON: Sunshine.

Ms. XU: Sunshine. It's the meaning of my given name, Xu.

Ms. CHU JIAW-JIAW: My name Chu Jiaw-Jiaw.

ABRAMSON: Okay, tell me what that means.

Ms. CHU: It means because I was born after big rain so my father give me the name, the deep and clean water.

ABRAMSON: Wishful thinking, perhaps, in a land where clean water is usually found only in bottles. But as poetic as those Chinese names are, Chinese students really take flight when they make the leap into the English language.

FIONA: My English name is Fiona.

ABRAMSON: Fiona.

FIONA: Yeah.

ABRAMSON: Okay, now where did you get that name?

FIONA: From a cartoon, you know. The cartoon film, Shrek, the princess.

ABRAMSON: Right.

FIONA: Yeah, I like her.

ABRAMSON: I see the resemblance.

FIONA: Oh really?

ABRAMSON: Never miss the opportunity to flatter your translator. The names of young Chinese women do tend toward the fantastic.

CINDERELLA: My English name is Cinderella.

CYGNETA: Cygneta.

ABRAMSON: Cygneta, that's C-Y-G-N-E-T-A; a fanciful variation on cygnet which, as we all know, is a young swan. And whence came this name, the only name that this long haired would-be documentary filmmaker would give me...

CYGNETA: It came to me from a dream. I just dreamt of this name. And I dreamt of swans.

ABRAMSON: If that sounds like a romantic leap, it's really not. Anyone who has taken on the task of learning a foreign language knows how liberating it can be to express yourself in another tongue. You may feel like you're creating a new you, an alter ego. What better way to mark the occasion than with a new name?

SIMON: NPR's Larry Abramson.

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