In Taiwan as in other places in Asia, many teens and young adults enjoy choosing so-called ‘English names’ for themselves. The names are of course drawn from any number of languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Latin, Spanish, Italian, French, Persian, Russian, Japanese and Korean. What the names provide is a travel handle, an international name for use in environments where toned languages are not the norm. Speakers of toned languages often don’t care for the way their original names sound when the tones are omitted, which inevitably happens when they travel. Many of those who don’t mind still avail themselves of the opportunity to be creative.
Some names relate to the bearer’s Taiwanese, Mandarin, Hakka or Austronesian name. The popularity of the names Amy and Vivian owes to their similarity to many original given names. Some names, like Tingting, are obviously riffs on names or nicknames. Other names keep meanings rather than sounds. The word for family often appears in names for girls. Sometimes the name is directly translated into English and used. While saying the word ‘Family’ and seeing only one person look back can take some getting used to for foreigners, what is happening is just an English-language version of a normal tradition here in Taiwan. A corresponding tradition in many other countries is to name a girl Felicity or Felicia. Both names signify a happy home life.
In their teen years English-language students pick up and drop names rather frequently. They approach it more as anyone might approach creating an avatar name for an electronic game. The situation becomes a bit more serious for college-age students who are preparing for work or study abroad. The names they choose will be those that appear on official documents and, for the musicians, on concert programs and posters. It’s time to settle into a name that will serve the bearer well through a variety of situations. Taiwanese students are often well aware that many standard given names have been attached to Chinese surnames, resulting in any number of Amy Lees and Vivian Chens. Young professionals in Taiwan today often try to adopt something creative and memorable. They prefer to take a few chances.
Interests are, of course, well represented. This can be anything from a favourite colour to a favourite entertainer to a favourite art form or brand. When I first arrived in Taiwan I often had exchanges like the following:
‘Why did you choose the name Green?’
‘I like green.’
‘Why did you choose the name Cloud?’
‘I like clouds.’
‘Why did you choose the name Skeleton?’
‘I like skeletons.’
I had so many exchanges like these when I first arrived that I now no longer ask. When I meet a colleague named Jack Daniels, I know why.
Then there’s this exchange that took place with a female college student when I first arrived.
She: ‘My English name is Rich.’
Me: ‘You know Rich is often a man’s name, don’t you? Short for Richard?’
‘I know. That’s OK. I will keep this name.’
‘Why did you choose Rich?’
Big smile. ‘Because I like to be rich.’
She still is.
A name is always a personal thing. I meet many people here who enjoy the opportunity to choose their identity rather than have one chosen for them by parents, with or without assistance from fortune tellers. Sometimes they enjoy creative spellings, as when Pola, Caren and Joyce decided to take paths less travelled. And partnerships sometimes play a role. I’ve seen a string quartet take the names Green, Blue, Yellow, and Pink and a conversation group with Sun, Moon, and Star.
Here is a list of some names my Taiwanese acquaintances have chosen. Share the fun! I will add to this list as more names catch my eye.
Mini (a petite woman)