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Chinese Students Drop Their "American" Names

By: Miles Johnson ‘19, Reporter September 30, 2018

Part of what makes Friends’ Central so special is that our community is comprised of students who come from all different backgrounds and have varied life experiences. Some of our classmates even join us from different countries! Often when students from China join us, they opt to be called by American names as opposed to their given Chinese names in order to assimilate. However, there has recently been a shift in which many Asian students are choosing to go by their given names rather than an adopted American one. What is causing this shift? Furthermore, what is the significance, and what does it mean for these students to go back their original names? I had the pleasure of interviewing Xinping Xie ‘19 and Zhihao Liu ‘20, to dig into these questions.

Xingping was born in Guangzhou, one of the biggest cities in China which is located in Southern China, close to Hong Kong. She left to go to the United States when she was 15 years old. She had to adjust to a totally different and new environment and wanted to fit it. Therefore, when she arrived at FCS, she deserted her Chinese name for a more Western-sounding name, “Quen.” The reason she adopted the name “Quen” was because her English class was taught by a foreign teacher, and everyone had an English name. Yet, after her ninth grade year, she asked people to call her Xingping again, as the name reminds her of her identity, and of her home country. It gave her strength to adjust to a new environment she had not be exposed to before. I asked Xinping why she reverted back to her original name. She explained, “I changed it back to my original because I had a period of time that I was losing my identity. Every time people called me ‘Quen,’ I felt like it wasn’t me.” When being called “Quen,” she felt as if “ a lot of [her] characteristics and inner strength” were not being recognized. She continued, “Changing my name back to my original name was just one of the steps of me finding myself.”

Next, I asked Zhihao the same question. He shared, “As you know, I reverted back to my original name this semester, but actually I wanted to do that for a long time.” Zhihao came to the United States in September 2014. Everyone around Zhihao who was Chinese had an “American name,” so as to follow the group, he did the same. Interestingly, Zhihao picked his American name, “Connor,” from his favorite video game, Assassin’s Creed III, as the main character’s name is “Connor Kenway.” Zhihao wanted to fit in by changing his name. Yet, when he was called “Connor,” he felt like a phony and that he was not true to himself. He said, “Having an American name didn’t necessarily make me fit in. In America, identity is very important, and there’s no reason for me to try to hide my [true Chinese] identity.” Zhihao wanted to switch back to his original name in 2016, but admits he did not have enough courage to do it. After being on a New York Times student journey program over the summer, however, he finally decided to give it a shot and use Zhihao as his name full-time. To his surprise, people were very accepting. Now, when someone calls his name, he no longer feels awkward or out-of-place. Rather, he feels more confident in himself, and he feels much better with his name Zhihao!

While being called by their given Chinese names makes Xinping and Zhihao feel affirmed in their identities, this isn’t the case for many other Chinese students. For example, Zhongjiu Zhao ‘19, better known in the United States as “Jay,” felt that sticking to “Jay” is simply easier for everyone. He maintained that going by an American name in America avoids a lot of communication difficulties for him. There are myriad reasons he chose “Jay” as his American name. Firstly, he wanted a short name, as when he was in middle school back in China, his teacher made him write his name 100 times as a punishment if he failed a test. Jay is also into the music of hip hop legend, Jay-Z, and around the time he came up with “Jay,” he was watching Modern Family and he loved the grandpa character, who, of course, was named “Jay.” Jay also told me that his name really fits him as a person and his identity. He said “Jay is simple, just as my presentation in school is not really a complex person, but not so if you know the ‘Zhongjiu’ side of me.”

After conversing with my fascinating Chinese classmates, I conclude that the old expression, “what’s in a name?” still holds true. Our Chinese classmates, going either by their original names or by American alias, each have a story and an identity, and chose what they want to be called based on these factors. To be most supportive, we Americans should respect their decisions, and call all of our classmates what they want to be called. Let’s name names.

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