Over 20% of all non-British pupils at the UK’s leading private schools now come from China and we should be mindful of last month’s provocative vandalism at Columbia University in New York.
During Chinese New Year name tags showing students’ Chinese names were ripped from the doors of their rooms. It also appears that some name tags were not removed because those students had adopted English names. Xiong Yifeng, who goes by the name of Venus, said that “No matter what their intention is, it’s really hurtful. And really distressing to the Chinese community”.
One of the de-identified students, Yan Huhe, or Jack, has taken his protest to social media because “Our attitude, our voice needs to be heard”. Yan Huhe’s video ‘Say My Name’ has had 11,000 viewers and the group has also written about the meaning of their names on Facebook, encouraging others to do the same.
In Chinese families, parents don’t often follow Western traditions such as giving children the names of other family members or famous people. Almost every Chinese name is very personal and means something different from other names.
However, many Chinese students attending Western schools and universities choose to adopt an English name. Beau Rose Jessup, a teenager from Cheltenham Ladies’ College and founder of Special Name says on her website that “In the future your child’s English name will appear on their university application, or on a business card”. Visitors to Beau’s website can pay to choose from 12 character traits such as elegance, confidence, honesty and creativity and the site will produce an individual Western name.
Dan from YouTube’s Off the Great Wall channel says that he was called Diane for a year until somebody told him that it was a girl’s name. Helpfully, China Central Television has issued guidance on choosing an appropriate name. They advise “Don’t call yourself Fish…or Dumbledore, or Satan, or Creamy”. They also suggest avoiding sweet names such as Lolly, Sugar and Candy and animal names such as Bunny or Beaver. Their advice would be to pick a name from the royal family such as George, Elizabeth, William or Catherine.
Whether our Chinese students have chosen their new name because of pressure to conform to Western culture, because they want their friends to be able to pronounce their name or their parents have created a name for them on a website, we should hope that xenophobia isn’t a feature of our UK educational institutions.