Why is it so irritating to be called by the wrong name? I’m not just talking about being misidentified by people who know you—that’s obnoxious because it feels like a personal slight. What I’m wondering is, why do I wince when the guy at the coffee shop calls out my order by the name “Ian” instead of “Ethan,” as happened again just last week? I think it’s because my name feels inherent, even absolute. Simply put: I am Ethan, and to be called anything else is profoundly disturbing.
But it turns out that’s not a universal sentiment. A recent Reuters story from Beijing quoted someone named “Brooklyn Zhang.” Now, if you think that Ms. Zhang was born with the name “Brooklyn,” then I have a bridge to sell you in a certain borough. As I’ve learned on several visits to China, “Brooklyn” almost certainly bestowed the name upon herself, either when learning English in school or on entering the workforce.
Strange as it may seem, almost all urban, affluent Chinese people now have an English first name—this in addition to their given Chinese name, that is, their real name. They simply stick the English name in front of their Chinese last name. Their business cards (and boy do the Chinese love business cards) are printed on both sides. One side features the Chinese name written in characters, while the other sports the English name in the Latin alphabet. The English names aren’t just used to impress foreigners. Remarkably, Chinese people often go by them even with other Chinese.
Not all Chinese people have quite gotten the hang of this English name thing. Sometimes the results are charming. So while I’ve met my fair share of Chinese named “Carl” and “Rebecca,” I’ve also encountered more than one “Money,” “Happy,” and again “Brooklyn.” And I’ve met more “Echos” than I can count (though one spelled it “Acco”) and even a “Banana” or two. A couple of years ago, on a trip to Taiwan, I stayed at a hotel where the front desk attendant wore a name-tag reading “Brain.” I never did figure out whether that was intentional, or someone had misspelled Brian.
Other times, it’s the combinations that are amusing. In Shanghai, a man once introduced himself to me as Peter Pan. (Pan is a common Chinese surname.) It was apparent that Mr. Pan was ignorant of the literary resonance of his new name. My Chinese teacher in high school had perhaps the best combination Chinese/Western name of all time, though in reverse order: Her name was Cheng-Mei Rothschild. A native Beijinger, Mrs. Rothschild had immigrated to the States and married an American Jew.
It’s pretty obvious that all this is a product of rapid modernization and world travel. China’s new middle class wants to appear international, savvy, wealthy, and forward-looking. English—and America—still represent all of those qualities. What’s more surprising is that the custom is semi-venerable. I read in the New York Times a few years back that “in 19th-century China, choosing an English name was the privilege of only a handful of elite,” but now, “as China widens its reach abroad and as the number of foreigners living in mainland China swells, picking an English name has become a rite of passage for most young, urban Chinese.”
I still don’t know how they can do it, these self-namers. According to family lore, I became an Ethan even before birth, when my pregnant mother overheard someone being called by that name on the T in Boston. But she might just as well have overheard someone speaking to a Jason or Benjamin or Brian, and then I wouldn’t be me. That’s why occasionally being called “Ian” or “Nathan” or “Evan”—the fate of anyone named Ethan—gives me a nails-on-chalkboard sensation, to the point where I now loathe each of those monikers. (Note to all Nathans, Ians, and Evans: Those are fine names, they’re just too close to me for comfort, uncanny-valley-style.) In the same way, being called Epsteeeen (as happened during a recent radio interview) when I’m actually an Epstiiiine, can send shivers up my spine.
I suppose the young, striving Chinese who name themselves enjoy a form of self-invention that those of us bearing the names our parents gave us will never experience. But I’m okay with that. Because I know that deep down, I will always and forever be Ethan Epstein. Though come to think of it, I could live to see a day when China is the world’s sole superpower and in order to appear forward-looking I’ll start going by 锦 涛 Epstein.