Remember when you asked a Chinese friend what your Chinese name is?
It might’ve happened in school. Or maybe you asked a colleague at work. At some stage in your life, you had the opportunity, guards were dropped, you felt chummy enough to ask all the stupid things you’ve ever wanted to ask, and you say “So what’s my Chinese name?”
You didn’t get an answer right away. It probably took a little cajoling and nagging – but you got one. You were even told its meaning. And in that moment, you felt special. It was like your own little secret foot in the door to the broader mysteries of Chinese culture.
I know all of this because I’ve fielded such requests dozens of times in my life. So have my other Chinese friends.
The terrible truth is the names we gave you don’t mean shit.
See, here’s how Chinese names actually work: we start with the surname. Then, the paternal grandparents come up with the given name, which is usually in two characters. The given name can mean anything they want – it could mean “flying dragon” or “beautiful flower”. Sometimes it’s just a phonetic equivalent of their English name. Other times, it doesn’t even mean anything at all – it’s just something that rolls off the tongue nicely.
But there are other conventions we observe. The first character in the given name often denotes seniority within the family, or which generation they belong to. That first character could also be shared between all the sons, or all the daughters in the family. My name, for instance, literally means “arrived first”.
The names we give to Caucasians who ask for them?
Sometimes you’ll get a phonetic equivalent of your English name, so “Cameron” becomes “Gum mah lun” – but we all know that doesn’t really count. You want something that has a meaning. So we give you actual names that mean “Asshole.” “Dog shit.” “Pissing shrimp.” “Cesspool”. “Monkey’s bum.” You get the idea.
We don’t tell you the actual meaning, of course – we just invent something poetic in English and it becomes a private little joke for us every time you go brag about it to someone.
Most of these names were invented when we were very young, living in an environment that discouraged any outwardly cultural displays and ridiculed anything that didn’t conform to Western life. I can forgive myself that. These days I’m happy to just explain, “Chinese names don’t work like that”.
It isn’t just a Chinese thing either. A few years ago, an old boss wanted to tattoo his name in Japanese across his back, so he asked a colleague’s wife for the translation. The words were a little curious to me: Japanese kanji borrows substantially from Chinese and there are a lot of shared characters with different meanings. But to me it was something derogatory; an order of magnitude worse than being called a “gwei lo”.
I asked my Japanese aunt what it meant. She responded, “It means the same thing in Japanese as it does in Chinese.”
I guess my boss didn’t pick up on the fact that he was well and truly despised by my colleague’s wife.
I’d planned to find a way to discreetly steer him away from the tattoo after that weekend, but alas, he already had it done.
Beware the name an Asian gives you. Especially adults.
The ABCs of ABCs is a light-hearted attempt to explain the ins and outs of Australian-Born Chinese culture for Caucasians who can’t make any sense of it. There’s a lot of idiosyncratic behaviour I get asked the same questions about, so I’m doing my best to answer them. Call it my way of bridging the gap between cultures.