After I started teaching Chinese students my principles of communication class at Harding University I realized that all of my students had their Chinese name, (for which I tried very hard to pronounce correctly, because, well, everybody loves to hear their name), but they also had an American nick name.
Thankfully, I had no problem saying those names. After inquiry with my students, they all thought that I should have a Chinese nick name! Hmmm, I thought, all Chinese real names actually mean something. Maybe American names have a special meaning, but most of us don’t have any idea what our names actually mean. So selecting a Chinese name was more than just something that sounded cool.
I asked my students to help select a name. Most of them had an English teacher in China, whether American or Chinese, that helped them pick their names or outright selected and assigned them an American name. I had the same experience in French classes in high school. I got to select my French name that I would be addressed by while in class. Of course, the teacher helped me to select a good name. I was called Jean Claude, after the French downhill skier form the 68 winter Olympics, Jean Claude Killy. Then Later, I changed my name to Napoleon, because, well for obvious reasons. Now, as I asked my students for help in picking a Chinese nickname for me, the gleefully thought this had come full circle, that they could now help their teacher select a name!
A week or so later the students came back all giddy because they had come up with a name that they wanted me to be called. They told me what it was. I was silent. It was a name that I had never heard before and a name that I could not pronounce, even after several attempts. I inquired, “what does that name mean?” They very sheepishly said, it translates in English to the word “SHREK.” Shrek? Like the Cartoonish movie character? Yes, they all laughed. Do you all call me Shrek when I’m not here? Yes, they said. Why, I asked? Well, because you are so nice, and lovable, and… FAT!
“No! I protested.” I don’t want that name. I might have been insulted had I not known that it was Chinese culture to be bold and forthright in saying what they were thinking. I gently explained that it was not an acceptable communication, in our culture, to call somebody fat nor should it be in theirs. I then told then I would continue seeking the perfect Chinese Nickname for me and I would get back to them when one was selected.
Later that year, while teaching in Hengyang, Hunan, at Na Hua Da Xue, (the University of South China) I retold the story of this incident, when a young man said, “I can help you find the perfect name, but these things take time.” “Ok, I’ve got nothing but time here, help me.” He started just simply talking to me about who I am, where I came from, my family and such and said, call me tomorrow. I was anxious to see this develop.
The next day my student came back and said, “As you probably know, in China, we all use our last family names first. What you didn’t know is that there are only about 100 family names in all of China even though there are over 1.4 billion people. That’s because our family names have been given to our ancestors long ago by what emperor or dynasty from which they descended. Some of the most common family names in in China, Li, Chen, Zhang, Wang, Wu, and Xie. All these names were from ancient history of an earlier dynasty. Plus, the Chinese students who select an American name often do so because it sounds like their Chinese name. So qirei (Chee-Ray) becomes simply Ray. With that in mind I’m going to give you the family name of Xie, (pronounced Shay), because it is a very honorable name and it sounds like your name, Shaner. As for your first name, I heard how happy you were when you told me about recently becoming a Yeye, (pronounced Yay Yay and the Chinese name for grandfather). Your new Chinese nickname is Xie Yeye, (Shay Yay Yay)! I liked it, but then I asked, “what does that name mean in Chinese?” It means, “Thankful Grandfather.” I didn’t just like it… I LOVED it. My name is Xie Yeye! Today, many students don’t even know my real name. Now I am simply introduced as Xie Yeye. When asked, I proudly say, “Wo jiao Xie Yeye!”
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Steve Shaner, also known as Xie Yeye, is a professional story teller that delights in traveling to meet new and old friends. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.