It was my first year teaching in China.
I stood in front of the class at an adult training center, reading names from the class roster while robotically checking off the students' names.
"Checkers?" I called.
"Here," promptly answered Checkers.
"Hitler?" I called before my brain could process the syllables being formed by my lips.
"Uhhh..." I stammered, squinting at the name, second guessing my eyes.
"Your name is Hitler?" I said with a patronizing yet surprised tone. "Do you know who he was?"
"Yes," he said, sitting up proudly, "He was a great leader."
I placed my hand on my forehead, shook my head, and sighed with pursed lips, "See me after class."
Charlie Chaplin boldy satirized Hitler in The Great Dictator.
My student, however, was not going for satire.
Of course, the Chinese Fuehrer wasn't my first student with a strange English name.
One of my classes was attended by a Candy, an Angel, a Cherry, and a Kitty. I thought I walked into Big Daddy's Showclub, not an English classroom.
After teaching for just a few weeks I'd encountered a half dozen Apples, a few Bears, and a Vegetable and a Bacon (who would have made a lovely couple).
If I had a quarter for every Rainy I've met in China...
Why do so many Chinese people choose the most ridiculous English names?
One reason is to make their name memorable. I mean, who remembers a Tim, Alice, or Doug? But everyone remembers a Dinosaur, a Brain, or a goddamned Monster!
Also, sometimes their English names are rough transliterations of their Chinese names. For example, I had one student named Leeway. This is obviously a silly name in English. However, he explained to me that his Chinese name is 李伟 - Li Wei, which sounds nearly identical to Leeway.
In addition to transliterating their Chinese names, many Chinese people will directly translate their name into English. I had a student named White, for instance, whose given name was 白 - bai. As you know, bai means white. So his name was just a simple translation.
Other Chinese people choose a name that captures some aspect of their personality. Names carry much significance in Chinese culture, so the name-chooser may reach deep into their soul when choosing their name.
A perfect example of this comes from another former student of mine. Her name was Chaos. When I asked her why she chose this name, she told me because she has a dark and chaotic soul.
I recommended a shrink to her.
So Chaos, tell me about your mother.
Image: Bamm Global
I can't really say that I mind all the strange English names. I find them pretty entertaining, really. They add some zest to my daily life in China.
Besides, I'd be a hypocrite to criticize a Chinese person for a silly English name, since my Chinese name is 杰夫 - jie fu (a translitertion of my English name that sounds similar to the Chinese word for brother-in-law).
I'm a pretty open and accepting person. They can call themselves Captain Poopypants for all I care. However, my bottom line is naming yourself after one of the worst people in history.
So what ever happened to my little dicator?
After our talk, he assured me he would change his name. A few weeks later I saw him in class. I glanced at the roster to see if he changed his name.
There was no Hitler that day. But there was a Hilter.
He swapped the T and the L.
Fair play, kid.