For nearly twenty of my twenty-eight years I lived in English-speaking countries. In all this time I was known as “Zhai Qi”, or “Qi Zhai”, if you’d like. Occasionally I thought about giving myself an English name and saving a poor substitute teacher from struggling with the gaggle of weird letters at the bottom of her role call sheet, or to give myself an easier time when meeting clients in Toledo, Ohio.
Yet, “Mary” or “Samantha” never felt right. So, for better or worse, I stuck with my Chinese name, the only name I know. Now I’m getting to the punch line. Here I am returning to China and every week that I’ve been here someone has asked me to kindly consider giving myself an English name. Really? Here where people actually know how to verbally handle the “Q” and “Zh” sounds?
This seeming perplexity boils down to a Chinese attitude that all things foreign (especially associated with white-skinned and blond-haired people) must be better. In recent years, the new Chinese nationalism has been much remarked on in the international press. Yet, alongside this fierce sense of Chinese pride coexists an equally persistent admiration of all things Western. We even have a word for it, “chong yang.”
There are plenty of examples of the reverse discrimination that my people impose on themselves. Last week, after seeing copies of my two degrees from a top American university, hearing my Californian English, and seeing that I was competent enough to have worked at a global bank, a staffer at an English tutoring agency suggested that I give myself an English name to increase my chances of getting students. She was embarrassed, to be sure, but felt professionally compelled to warn me that with a name like “Qi”, no parent would ever believe I could speak English better than a lighter-skinned backpacker who may have made his way to Beijing and needed some spare cash.
This attitude, acknowledged by some, but for the most part taken for granted, is deeply ingrained in our culture through our vocabulary. The word “yang”, meaning “ocean” or “Pacific”, refers to things that came to us from abroad, specifically from the West. “Yang ren” means “ocean person”, that is, “foreigner” or “Westerner.” Walk into any clothing stall at a market and you’ll hear salesgirls chirping accolades, “Oh this dress makes you so ‘yang qi’,” meaning, literally, “an air of Westerness.” Years ago when clothing pirates down in Shenzhen started to get wind of the GAP brand, I was being sold on “G-A-P” pajamas at the silk market. Affordable T-shirts favored by the lower income earners are nine times out of ten emblazoned with nonsensical English lettering. Restauranteurs who can’t even come up with “Chinglish” names or slogans frequently choose based on what SOUNDS Western in Chinese. Hence, the proliferation of the words “luo,” “man,” and “si” in eateries (that’s “ro-man-ce” for the non-Chinese speaking reader).
Even among the elderly dinosaurs this vocabulary of Western idolization is prevalent. This morning I played ping pong in my neighborhood park with a bunch of retirees (my mom included). Every time an expert player lobbed a skillful shot at his opponent, the defeated player exclaimed, “Wow, you’re playing ‘yang de,’” as in, “You’re bringing out some Western skills!”
This is my generalized observation, of course, and there ARE instances where “yang” doesn’t denote something good. Most notably, the phrase “chu yang xiang,” which literally means “exhibit a Western countenance,” but really means to do something ridiculous. But these, for the time being, seem to be the exception. For now, if I want to start making some pocket change, I’ve got to brainstorm a Western-sounding name for myself. How about “Ro-Man-Ce”?