I guess it’s not quite accurate to call it new. When I took Mandarin lessons more than a year ago, my teacher translated my English name and helped me to pronounce it. But before I came to China, I’d found very few opportunities to introduce myself as Yang Mila.
That changed a few weeks before I arrived in Changsha. When I was updating the syllabi for the four courses I was going to teach, I included my English and my Chinese name. I knew that many Chinese students gave themselves English names, because English speakers often struggle to pronounce Chinese names. I’ve always thought that sacrificing such an important piece of their original identity for another person’s linguistic comfort was a gracious gesture. The least I could do was return the favour.
Clearly, my students appreciated having a choice of names they could call me. Some addressed me as Professor Pamela or Professor Young, while others went straight for Pamela or Mila (although the most senior of my students asked for permission before calling me by my Chinese first name). A few did a Chinglish mashup, referring to me as “Pamila.”
I struggled a lot longer with their names. First of all, there were 25 to learn. Some used only a Chinese name, while some had an English one as well. I wanted to be able to match their faces to their names as quickly as possible, so we had a school photo day during the first week of class.
This activity produced more laughter than I was expecting. The students argued over the correct Chinese characters and tonal marks for their names. One student erased and rewrote his colleagues’ printing if he thought their letters weren’t neat and precise enough. In good-natured retaliation, one of his classmates drew a metred measuring stick on the board just before I took the printing stickler’s picture, implying he was posing for a prison mug shot.
I found it interesting to speculate on the students’ choice of English names. Sometimes, they simply used a name that sounded like a part of their Chinese name; for example, Xiaomei called herself “May.” Other English names had no correlation to the students’ Chinese names; one of the business profs had chosen Tin Tin, while two of the graduate students who guided me back and forth to the university said that their names, Aaron and Mia, came from an actor in Dead Poet’s Society and the protagonist of The Princess Diaries. One of the applied math professors said she’d chosen “Fish” because it was her favorite animal.
Then came the task of trying to say the students’ names correctly. Many Chinese consonants and vowels are pronounced entirely differently than their English equivalents: “Q” is said “ch”, “X” is “sh”, “a” like “ah”, “i” as “ee” and iao like “ow.” And the tone markers make you say vowels as though you were singing rather than speaking. Get them wrong, and you can end up saying an entirely different word than the one you intended.
But my students were patient with my early floundering attempts, and praised even my smallest successes. A few of them spent a long time clustered around me at the blackboard on school photo day, helping me to pronounce my own name correctly. Yang Mila contains three different tones: I had to remember to send my voice up for the “a” in “Yang”, down and up as I said the “i” in Mila, and then down for the final a. My name didn’t contain the high neutral vowel tone found in several of the students’ names, which sounds like the note a violinist plays to help the orchestra tune.
Eventually, with a lot of solo practise in my hotel room at night and the untiring assistance of my students during the day, I began to feel more comfortable naming names. I even changed my philosophy that a second name means sacrificing your original identity. Now it feels more like another way of walking through the world. One of the characters in my Chinese name translates as “a person who likes to dance.” And when I say Yang Mila correctly, I hear a robin doing scales on a summer morning. So, I’ve ended up with a Chinese name that sings and dances, a welcome addition to my sense of self.