Seal of My Chinese Name, originally uploaded by bexadler.

We’ve all met immigrants in America who have chosen to take on an Americanized version of their name. “Hi, my name’s Matt,” they say, and we look at them like, “Really?” If you’re rude like me, you even say, “No it’s not. What’s your real name?” And they are forced to tell me, and I then repeat it back to them while they grimace. They always argue that nobody can pronounce it correctly so they’d rather just not use their real name. It’s easier, they say. But for me, I don’t see how it is easier. People always want to know your real name.

It is for this reason that I have always resisted taking on a different name while abroad. When I was living in Turkey, several of my friends suggested that I start going by a Turkish name to make it easier to introduce myself to people. I responded by saying that nobody would believe that I was a Başak or an Özge. I felt like it would create more questions than just having to say my name twice or having to spell it out so people could sound it out for themselves. And, personally, I like the way my name sounds with an accent added to it. You don’t have to pronounce it right, it’s more charming with a rolled R or an accent on the E’s. More to the point, I just really didn’t like the idea of using a name that was not my own. Even in high school, when I was taking French classes, I refused to take on a French persona just for fun.

When I moved to China, however, I finally gave into the pressure to choose a new name. I had read in “Dreaming in Chinese” that having a Chinese name was a sign to the Chinese that you are planning to stick around awhile and so they are more willing to become friends with you. Most foreigners are sort of drifters here, so learning Chinese and choosing a Chinese name show that you are interested in more than just a short stint in China. Plus, I thought it would be a good way to break the ice with my students, who all had chosen English names. I figured that if I had a Chinese name, they would feel like we were the same somehow.

But how to choose a new name, especially when I didn’t know a word of Chinese? Easy: let my students do it. For their first assignment, I had my students write down their Chinese names and tell me why their parents had chosen it (there is always a story that goes with a Chinese name). I also asked them to tell me their English name and why they chose it. Then I had them each select a name for me and tell me why they thought it would be a good name for me. I had given them a presentation about myself to help them come up with some ideas. The only requirement was that they had to choose a name that had characters simple enough for me to hopefully learn to write them correctly.

I got many suggestions that tried to use the syllables in my real name (贝咔, Bei Ka), and many suggestions that included the time of year when I arrived here (春, Spring), while others included the place where I am living (沈, Shen). Then I looked through the names and chose a few that I liked. I tried a couple out on different Chinese friends of mine to see what they thought. Originally I had planned to go with the name An Chun Mei (peace安, spring 春, beauty/America 美) , but one of my friends told me it sounded like a prostitute’s name, so that was out.

In the end, I fell in love with the idea of using the name Bei Xing (北星, north star).  I liked this name because it had an X in it and it reminded me of my nickname at home (Bex). I also liked that the north star holds so much symbolic meaning in the western world. As I said, all Chinese names have a story that goes with them, and I liked that mine would give me the opportunity to explain what the north star means to northern hemisphere dwellers from the west. I also liked the super sappy idea that the north star is the star that guides you home so if my name was North Star then no matter where I was in the world, I could say I was home (I know you are rolling your eyes, and I don’t care).

However, some of my Chinese friends said this name was a little weird because it had a direction in it (north), which they said isn’t really used in names. This made me hesitate at first, but then I remembered that my students are walking around with English names like Fish, Sheep, Lemon, and Fantasy. Those are certainly weird names to a native English speaker, and so I can have a name that is weird to a native Chinese speaker. What really sealed it for me though was a Chinese astronomist I met in Beijing, named Yudong (昱东, Bright Light from the East – or Eastern Sunrise). When he wrote his name for me, I said, “Your name has a direction in it? My friends told me that is weird.” I then explained about trying to choose a name. He said he didn’t think it was weird, but that he thought it was actually really cool. His only suggestion was that I choose Bei Chen (北辰) instead, which is the formal name of the north star (the Chinese version of Polaris). Good enough. I was in.

Alas, I almost never get to use this name. Just as I had suspected, every time I tell a Chinese person my name, they look at me with a puzzled expression and say, “Dui, but what’s your real name?” And I have to go through the hullabaloo of pronouncing Rebecca six times before I say again, “You can just call me Bei Chen.” I know it’s rude, but it really is easier. I guess now I finally understand how immigrants in America feel.

*Dui = correct/right/yes