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The International Writers Magazine: China

Teaching China Part Two
Craig Johnson
Would a rose by any other name speak English so well?


What is in a name? A name is just a fabricated label for real, tangible things. And yet, names hold great power over us. We are bound to the labels our parents grant us at birth. Unless I go through some longwinded legal processes I will always introduce myself as Craig. Every country I enter will greet me by this name. It says ‘Craig’ right there on the first page of my passport. But I could just as easily be ‘Todd’, or ‘Charles’, or even ‘Rebecca’.

As a foreign teacher in China it was my job to assign names to those students who didn’t have one, or at least to those who had forgotten the name they received from their previous foreign teacher. I hadn’t thought much about the list of names I had compiled.  In fact I had simply scrolled through my Facebook friend’s list (650 names thank you very much) choosing the easiest names to pronounce and spell.  Chauncey was out but I thought that Billy would be a good fit.  Albert was a definite but I was on the fence about Heidi.  A name with multiple spellings like Allison, or Alison, or Alyson, or Allisyn could be dangerous as well.

I started sweating nervously on the way to my first class of second graders, because I really had no clue what any of the names meant. The good news is that small children tend to not worry about such things, and so it came to be that in my first class I had 14 boys and two girls claiming the name Tim as their own.  Who cares what it means, it only has three letters.  I nearly incited a riot when I tried to explain that there could only be one Tim. While several children cut their losses and made quick jumps to Dan, Joe, and Mike the majority dug in their heels and demanded I chose the one, true Tim.  Sensing my safety was only guaranteed by a swift and firm resolution, I made the decision that none shall bear the name of Tim.  The disappointment was palpable.

Naming the young students is important because if you don’t do so soon enough they will simply choose their own name. Naming day is one of the few times when you don’t want your students thinking creatively in class.  In my 6th to 9th grade classes I have a ‘Purple’, a ‘Green’, a ‘Bag’, a ‘Pepsi’ a ‘Robot’, a ‘Spaceship’, two ‘Hamburgers’, an ‘Xbox’, and no less than 30 ‘Kobe’s or ‘Lebron’s, with an unfortunate lack of any ‘Dwayne Wade’s.  The names of my older students also seem to follow trends on a class by class basis.  For example, in one of my classes I have a girl named ‘Tiger’ who has a crush on ‘Gorilla’ whose best friend is named ‘Mouse’.  Everybody seems to like ‘Panda’ but no one really talks to ‘Dog’ because he has acne.  The class clown in another grade is named ‘Apple’.  He and ‘Pear’ clearly like each other, but they don’t want to admit it because they aren’t quite at that ripe age where it is cool to like members of the opposite sex.  I once had to break up a fight between ‘Paper’ and ‘Book’.  After class ‘Eraser’ told me they were fighting over a pencil.  I asked ‘Eraser’ what ‘Pencil’ had said and she looked at me like I was crazy.  “No,” she insisted as she picked up an actual pencil, “they wanted this.”

Keeping these names in mind, it is understandable that I was a bit nervous when names needed to be issued to a new class of 8th graders I had this semester.  I share this class time with a Chinese instructor who offered to bring in a list of names with their meanings to the next class.  I cautiously agreed such a list would be helpful. A male student in the class found a name that was purported to mean, “Manly, handsome, and popular”.  The name was ‘Hunk’.  He proudly wrote it for me on the board after choosing it.  I stifled a laugh as I agreed that it was a wonderful name for a young man.  The only problem is that he is one of the largest students I have and he reminded me more a ‘Hulk’, or really a ‘Chunk’, than a ‘Hunk’.  A female student wanted to choose her own name and wrote the word ‘zoo’ on the board.  Hoping to avoid a domino effect of animal names, I changed the last ‘o’ to an ‘e’ and suggested the named ‘Zoe’.  Her friend liked it but she wasn’t convinced so I added a ‘y’ to the end.  “How about Zoey,” I offered.  Her face still looked disapproving so I told her it meant, “Like really fun… or party… like someone who goes to parties.”  She found this to be an acceptable description of her personality and agreed that I could call her Zoey.  Quick thinking is probably a teacher’s best asset.  

It was even more stressful to pick out my own, Chinese name.  Should I chose a traditional communist name to protect myself in the off chance there would be another Cultural Revolution, or should I risk making one up and looking just as silly as my students.  My girlfriend at the time ‘Binka Heroin Law’ suggested that I name myself Zhou Yun Ge, Zhou, being from the clan of Johnson, and Yun Ge, meaning ‘Of the Clouds’.  I’m tall by American standards and I thought it was an awfully poetic way to capture my most defining characteristic.  It is important to know the meaning of your Chinese name because the characters have such similar sounds.  When I introduce myself I should say, "I am Zhou Yun Ge;  Yun Ge like duoyun de (cloudy sky)," while pointing up and miming rain. This is because I wouldn’t want someone thinking my name was Yun Ge (meaning of the dizziness) or Yun Ge (meaning of iron).  Though it wouldn’t be so bad if they thought my name was Yun Ge (meaning of music, charm or rhyme).

Given the intricacies of pronunciation and tones it would be nearly impossible for me to learn all of my students' Chinese names. Thus, even if their English names are goofy and nonsensical, I appreciate the fact that my students are willing to adopt a new moniker. 
© Craig Johnson June 2010
cjohnson627 at
Changsha, China

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