28 May 2024

Why Chinese migrants change their names when they emigrate

10:01 pm on 28 May 2024
Waikato Times reporter Ke-Xin Li photographed with Senior Reporter Rachel Thomas (left), when her byline first appeared on the front page.

Waikato Times reporter Ke-Xin Li photographed with senior reporter Rachel Thomas (left), when her byline first appeared on the front page after a story she helped Thomas with. Photo: Supplied

Many people are choosing - when they grow up - to revert back to their Chinese names after having changed them.

Waikato Times reporter Ke-Xin went through five names before coming back to her Chinese name.

"My first English name was given to me at third grade when we started learning English. Our English teacher brought us a list of girl names and boy names for us to choose from.

"And among the girl names, there is a Betty which sounds very similar to my Chinese nickname which means precious baby."

Betty became her first English name, but there were more changes to come.

Still living in China, she started an English tutorial class where there was another Betty, she said.

"In Chinese, we don't do Betty A, Betty B to distinguish people. So as the late-comer, I had to pick another English name. So, I chose Alice."

Later a cousin, also named Alice, came to stay at Ke-Xin's family home.

"My cousin came, she's older than me, and her name is also Alice. And as the younger of the cousins, I felt obliged to change my name and she can keep Alice, and I'll go for something else."

Ke-Xin turned to her main source of English culture at the time.

"A Chinese book called Disney Princesses, I was very into princesses and Barbies at that time, to look for English names that suit my style.

"In Chinese, we don't call the Disney princesses by Belle or Ariel or Aurora. We call them Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty or the Little Mermaid, and the name I choose for myself, I had no idea what it means was Sleeping Beauty.

"That was my name, and no one felt that was a weird name. I didn't know Sleeping Beauty's name is Aurora."

Ke-Xin was Sleeping Beauty for a year and a half, until the family moved to New Zealand.

"Both my parents and me realised how embarrassing Sleeping Beauty is as a name, like one of those rare, weird English logos that you see in China.

"On my first day to school, my mum said, was sitting with me in the car, and she's told me so it's your first day to school, you need a proper English name."

Her mother suggested Lina.

"I was quite attached to Lina at the beginning. I remember when some of my classmates spelt Lina wrong, they spell it Lena instead of Lina, I was quite disappointed."

As time went by, she became detached from the name, she said.

"In class activities we will share about the history of our names and my classmates would tell me their name is Bill because one of their grandparents is Bill.

"They inherited that name ... and then my name was just the idea my mum came up with in the car, sounds quite disappointing and not interesting at all."

At the same time, she started to re-engage with her Chinese culture, she said.

"In the beginning, I think I tried to really learn the Kiwi way of living. But later on, I discovered my natural instinct, I really admire the Chinese arts and culture side of things.

"And so, I started to learn more about the heritage, the meaning behind my name, I want to have a name that has a story to tell, that has a meaning, which is what my Chinese name is, it has a story behind it."

After year 13, she made a fresh start, she said.

"I started teaching people to pronounce my Chinese name. That's how I started."

People are generally keen to get the pronunciation correct, she said.

"My biggest challenge was getting comfortable with teaching and correcting people. I initially will say something along the lines of my name is Ke-Xin, but it's very hard to pronounce. So, you can do whatever way you want to do it, and then I'll answer it.

"But slowly I learned, especially in New Zealand, I think we have such a diverse culture. People are very open to learning new sounds."

Not so much ordering in Starbucks, however.

"I had early regrets when I ordered Starbucks and people called me Kevin!"