Adventures in Teaching English: choosing an English name


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December 7th 2007
Published: December 7th 2007
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During my two months here in Beijing, I have been teaching english at John's english school, 'New Channel School'. I teach four times per week, in a program they call 'English Club'. It is essentially a course offered three times per day, every day, and each class focuses on a different topic (for example, 'hobbies' or 'politics') with the goal being to learn the vocabulary for the given topic and to generally help the students become more comfortable and confident with their spoken english. It is a drop-in course, which means that the students pre-pay for a membership (1 month, 3 months) and can come as they please. It has been an interesting experience, and I think has taught me as much about China and about young people in China as two months travelling the country could provide.

I have many stories to tell about my experience teaching english. What began as a practical need to make some money to fly home for Christmas has become an incredibly rich experience, one in which I get out as much as I give to the students.

For the moment, though I want to talk about one aspect of English language students in China: choosing an
English name.

They all have them, or atleast 95 % of them do. Choosing an English name is both a question of pride, and practical: English names are much easier for foreigners to remember, so if they go abroad it will make meeting people and creating initial connections easier; in addition, to take on an 'American' or 'English' identity instills a sense of pride and confidence--somehow taking on this American/English identity is one stepping stone towards becoming a more fluent speaker and communicator of english. An English name is a way of 'playing the part,' as opposed to simply studying a language.

At the beginning of each class I always say my name, a bit about myself, and then I ask the names of the students I have never met before. They introduce themselves, almost always breaking into a big smile as they say their english names. Most of the time the names are fairly common names such as 'Jack' or 'Nancy' or 'Sarah,' but often times they are not so conventional. Here is a list of some of the noteworthy names of students I have had in class:

Rocky
WIND
MANNIX
Melrose
STAR
Esop
DRAGON
AMIGO
CREAM
DREAM
Rishi
Betty
Thelma
Eugenia
Yuki

I reiterate: these are their real names. And some of them make sense--the guy who is named 'Dragon' thinks dragons are awesome so he gave himself that name. The girl who named herself 'Rocky' is the lead singer in a punk band and loves rock music. She is a rockstar. The guy who is named Wind says his life is like the wind. Others are less obvious--for example the girl named 'Cream' named herself such because she loves ice cream. Is she aware that the word has other not-so-flattering meanings?

This makes me wonder what native english speakers, if left to name themselves, would choose as a name. If you could choose your own name, what would it be?

Yesterday in my morning class there was one new student. I asked her what her name was and she gave me a Chinese name. I then asked her if she had an English name and she said "Yes-my English name is Yuki." I thought for a moment. "Who gave you this name?" I asked. "My English teacher," she said proudly. I said, sort of laughing, that her name sounded more like a Japanese name to me. She looked contemplatively back at me for a moment. Then we continued on with the class.

That same day, in our afternoon class, I had Yuki yet again in my class. I was going around the room making sure I knew everybody's name, and when I got to her I paused--then remembered her name. "Yuki!" I said, proud of myself for remembering her name. "Actually," she said to me in a sort of shy tone, "I think I don't want to be Yuki anymore. Some other students said they think Yuki sounds like a Japanese name, and I think they're right. And I don't want a Japanese name." I sort of smiled and the rest of the class chuckled. I agreed with her, it was not an English name. "Well, do you want me to help you think of a new English name?" I asked. She broke into a grin, happy with this proposition. I asked her what her Chinese name was, and thought of an English name that sounded similar. We settled on the name "Sharon."

We all spent a few minutes chuckling on Sharon's new name, and the fact that her English teacher had given her the name Yuki. Then I moved on to saying the names of the other students, to make sure I remembered them. "Let's see--Li Wei Feng (no english name), Sally, Louis, Mary"....then I came to another student new to my class.
"
I haven't had you in class before, have I?" I said to her. "No, this is my first class," she said with a smile.

"Welcome," I said. "What's your name?" I asked.

"My name is Yuki," she said in a soft voice with a confused look on her face.




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