What’s in a name?

Jacky Chen, Edward, Kevin, and Bob

A new student arrived last Wednesday. She is from Inner Mongolia. This sets her apart from the majority of students, who are either scholarship students from Dongguan or scions of the newly wealthy in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Guangzhou. At nearly six feet, she is the tallest person I have seen in China. She is sixteen and cannot weigh more than a hundred pounds.

The girl from Mongolia is the only one of my students who did not arrive in class with an English name. Apparently, choosing your American alter ego is the first step in English classes here. I feel guilty making the girl do the same: it feels like cultural imperialism. I said as much to my supervisor and she laughed at me. She asked if I am bothered by the dominance of western classical music in the opera houses in Beijing. That’s different, I told her. Have you ever tried to listen to Chinese opera? Watching a chorus of monkeys being electrocuted would be a more pleasant way to spend an evening. Chinese names, on the other hand, are beautiful and it seems odd to make my young students assume an alternate identity before I teach them.
The girls in my class have chosen names, and manners, straight out of the1950s: bookish Sophie, quiet Michelle, shy Diana, cute Yvonne. Then there’s Kinki. Kinki is nine years old and I have no idea how to tell her that she has a stripper name. I play through the situation in my head: I tell her that Kinki is a very unusual name in America and it might be good to change it. Bewildered, she asks why. I try to explain, and she looks at me like I have just told her Santa Claus touches children in inappropriate places.
My supervisor assures me that I am not the first to have to confront a student over his or her name. Last year, a boy named himself Chair, and steadfastly refused to change it. Two years ago, Icemen (not Iceman) arrived on campus and cried when his teacher changed his name to Henry. The woman who is teaching the sixth level of English let her students pick American names and somehow ended up with a boy named Cha-cha-cha. I didn’t want to take any chances with the girl from Mongolia, so I printed out the top fifty girl’s names in the US right now (FYI, there are going to be a lot of Avas and Makaylas graduating from college in twenty-odd years). In a display of remarkably good taste, she chose Lauren.
I stood next to Lauren as we watched the solar eclipse that arced over Asia this morning. It’s hard to get her to speak more than a few words at a time: she is painfully shy, like many tall girls. On her other side was Jacky Chen, who at seventeen is my oldest student. He is talkative in class, but tongue-tied around Lauren. So much is different over here, but the awkwardness of teenage romance seems to be universal.
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