As many English teachers in China can attest, not all Chinese students learning the language have proper English names. It seems that many Chinese people in their quest to find a unique name fail to come up with a suitable alias, and have settled on something comical instead.
Sensing an opportunity, US expat Lindsay Jernigan has set up a service that will help students find a more appropriate name. Jernigan and her team launched their website last week in an effort to rid China of these farcical monikers. Best English Name is self-described as “China’s only resource for English names created by a Westerner and native English speaker.”
Written mostly in Chinese with some English, users of the website are able to search through a database of hundreds of more conventional names. The site provides an outline of the basics of naming conventions, and even provides a quiz that can suggest suitable names for a user based on the results of the user’s hobbies and preferences.
In an exclusive interview with The Nanfang, Jernigan explains that her site doesn’t try to convince Chinese people to adopt an English name, but that if they choose to do so, they should at least choose an appropriate one.
Learning English is not just limited to terminology and vocabulary, but also about understanding Western culture; and adopting an English name doesn’t necessarily signify the assimilation into a foreign culture. Jernigan found that many users request a name that reflects some part of their Chinese name or culture. “For example, a lot of our clients ask for a certain of the five elements to be reflected in his or her English name,” Jernigan said. “At first I was a bit confused, but now we welcome this fusion of both naming cultures. It’s cool to see our users wanting to carry their Chinese naming culture into their English name.”
And if native English speakers like to complain about the proliferation of bad English names used by Chinese, they only have themselves to blame for being too well-mannered to say anything. “The problem we found is that Chinese weren’t necessarily learning the impact of an inappropriate English name,” said Jernigan. “Westerners weren’t ever really speaking up when they came across a strange name, even if it was really hurting that person’s reputation or daily interactions.”
But the phenomenon of “bad English names for Chinese” can’t just be blamed upon Westerners who are too polite to correct someone during an introduction. The use of English names is a long-held practice by Chinese, but as Jernigan points out, there’s a difference between the way Chinese people use names, with some English names used for Chinese and others for Westerners.
Jernigan describes “a strange and almost inexplicable divide” between Chinese co-workers at her last job that used an English name, or those that went by their Chinese name. Those that went with an English name chose examples that could be easily pronounced by other Chinese, but lacked Western sensibility, like “Apple”, “Yoyo”, or “Cherry”, showing that Chinese have different English names for different situations, and many will use several different English names throughout their lives. “We have definitely found that there is a difference between clients picking a name for use in China and those picking a name for use abroad. The latter will sometimes ask for longer names,” Jernigan said.
As for how she came to be qualified as a professional name giver, Jernigan points to the considerable market research she completed in preparation for launching her site to better understand her clientele and compiled a large database as a result. And as a competitive advantage over other Chinese based online resources that were “completely wrong or misleading”, Jernigan says being a foreigner is attractive to her customers, just as is advertised in Best English Name’s press release. “I think that I provide an ‘industry expertise’ just by the nature of being a foreigner who has lived in the US and UK, that it would be hard for a non-foreigner to also provide,” said Jernigan.
As for what kind of names you can expect from these naming experts, a quick look on the site suggests names for males include Davis, Max, Eli, and Riley while Elody, Ava, Jolie, and Ellie are some of the recommended names for females. “We try to stay with names that are widely accepted and that do not have really strong ethnic connotations,” Jernigan said.
Jernigan has come across numerous bad English names before, and being exposed to so many provided the inspiration for her to start the website. Jernigan’s biggest pet peeves are the names “Sapphire”, “Candy”, and “Cherry” because they are “stripper names”. “These could be the names of really smart and capable young women – but most Westerners would have a hard time moving past the name. This is one of the big reasons I started the site in the first place,” said Jernigan, adding that Bones, Mars, and Chevrolet are some more terrible examples.
The most common user of the site is a 20 year-old female who is hoping to live or study abroad. Her usual request for an English name is one that is unique, not too hard to say, and starts with the same letter as her Chinese name.
Personalized one-on-one service is available to users looking for help to find a good English name. A payment of RMB 120 will get you 30 minutes with Jernigan or a member of her team, while RMB 200 will pay for a full hour’s worth of consultation.