“Hi! My name is Jieyi, but you can call me Crystal.”
This is how senior Jieyi Ding introduces herself most days. She is one of many international students to use an “English name” while studying at the University of Richmond.
This is a relatively common decision among Chinese students, and Ding explained that, for her, it simplified social interactions.
“Crystal makes life easier for other people,” Ding said. “People tend to remember the name. Like if you’re introducing yourself and you say, 'Hey, I’m Jieyi,' people are like, 'Oh wait, so what’s your name again?' But then next time they won’t remember.”
American students may have an easier time with “Crystal” than “Jieyi,” but it was originally difficult for Ding herself to adjust to having a second name, she said.
Ding is often conflicted when trying to introduce herself, wondering whether she should give her Chinese name, English name, or both, she said.
"It’s difficult because some people know me as 'Jieyi' and others as 'Crystal,' and so someone might not realize it’s the same person they are talking about," she said.
Ding said she was not offended when people called her Crystal, but that she preferred her official name on written documents, and was flattered when non-Chinese speakers used her Chinese name, even if they butchered the pronunciation. That is her personal preference, but not all Chinese students feel that way, she said.
Junior Whitney Bai has introduced herself as “Whitney” since her first day in the United States, and she said she would feel weird going by anything else.
“I go by Whitney because I had this name when I was in primary school, and it was given by my first English teacher," Bai said. "So it’s kind of like how I think of my identity.”
In China, she uses her given name, but “Whitney” is not solely a way to ease introductions in English. “Whitney” feels like a nickname, she said, so although it is not an official name, it is hers all the same. She also said “Whitney” had been chosen because her last name translated to “white” in English, so it means something to her.
Bai's friend and fellow student Lavinia Deng, a junior, agreed that her own English name, Lavinia, had become part of her identity. She chose “Lavinia” after watching Downton Abbey and liking the character with that name, she said. Even with other Chinese students on UR’s campus, Deng said she liked to go by her English name. It saves her time, and feels more natural when she is speaking in English, she said.
Junior Xiangyi Meng said she liked to use her official name even if it took time for others to learn it.
“I don’t think it’s a problem because there are just some names that I don’t even know how to pronounce in English, and this is a process of learning," Meng said. "People make me learn their names, so they also learn my name. It’s a mutual learning process.”
She said she believed one reason her peers used English names was because most English-language teachers assigned names to their students at a young age, and English is a required part of the curriculum in all of China.
“When we learned English in China, no matter where, some English teachers liked to choose English names for [students], so they associate their English names with the language,” Meng said.
The other students agreed. Their English names were associated with speaking English, they said. Ding, Bai, Deng and Meng each explained that, in Chinese, people call each other by both their last and first name. That in itself is different from English, so using an English name is not much stranger than hearing only their first names.
Meng agreed that her name felt different here, but she did not mind the mispronunciations, she said. Although she was also given an English name in primary school, using her Chinese name made her feel more herself, she said.
“It’s okay that you pronounce my name wrong," Meng said. "When I started to speak English, in the beginning I felt embarrassed, too … but I want people to recognize my heritage and my cultural background. I want people to respect my background."
Meng said she wanted people to know that she was an international student and keeping her name also helped her feel closer to her Chinese self.
In classes, her professors and classmates immediately knew she did not grow up in the United States, Meng said. Meng found this comforting, because people know her experiences were different, as would be her interpretations in class, she said.
“I study English and French, and I feel relieved knowing they [professors and classmates] know I am not a native English speaker," Meng said. "I think differently and talk differently. And in social settings it’s the same. I feel more like I’m being treated like myself. They know I’m not from here.”
Meng said other international students often kept their names and she assumed it was easier for them because Spanish, for example, was closer to English than Chinese. Despite that, she said it did not mean she should not feel obligated to use another name.
All the students agreed it was a personal choice, even if some students felt pressure to use an English name.
All of the students noted that their opinions do not represent those of all Chinese students. Meng expressed, however, that she was excited to discuss the topic, especially with a non-Chinese student.
“This is about starting a cross-cultural conversation," Meng said. "When you enter another culture, you’re definitely going to change a part of yourself. Name is just a symbol of that kind of change.”
Contact features writer Grace Kiernan at firstname.lastname@example.org.