So Long 'Cinderella,' Website Helps Chinese Find Better English Names
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
In China, it is not unusual to come across names like this.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
MONTAGNE: Mo Money.
INSKEEP: Lady Gaga.
MONTAGNE: These are all English names adopted by young Chinese in hopes of interacting more easily with Westerners.
INSKEEP: But such names sometimes have the opposite effect, so an American entrepreneur set up a new website to help young people in China choose more appropriate names. NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Shanghai.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Lindsay Jernigan was working at her first job in Shanghai, she noticed some of her female colleagues had English names that were just way off.
LINDSAY JERNIGAN: These names that as we would see them in a connotation as stripper names for really smart, young women. And so I've heard a lot of people laughing about, you know, there's the Candy and the Cherry and Sapphire, Twinkle.
LANGFITT: Other names just created confusion.
JERNIGAN: For example, someone's name was Eleven. Scheduling meeting times at 10:30 and then saying that Eleven was coming was causing a lot of issues. People always rolling their eyes like, Eleven, and asking, what's your Chinese name? Can we just call you by your Chinese name?
LANGFITT: So Jernigan built a website called bestenglishname.com. For about $2.50, people can take a quiz that uses an algorithm to generate five suitable names. The site has drawn more than 2,000 customers. Recently, Jernigan, who grew up in Memphis and London, showed me how it works. We used my Mandarin name, Feiteng, which means fly swiftly upward, and answered questions by clicking on images on the screen.
JERNIGAN: Which sport would you like to play?
LANGFITT: Let's say basketball. I used to play a lot of basketball.
JERNIGAN: What style would you describe your style?
LANGFITT: So we have Justin Bieber to choose - so who are we choosing from here?
JERNIGAN: This is a famous Korean star. This is Brody Jenner. He's sort of like a California boy.
JERNIGAN: Zac Efron, he's more, like, sporty.
JERNIGAN: This guy's a little more rebellious.
LANGFITT: Who is that?
Jay Chou, a Taiwanese singer and actor. Lindsay keys in answers and voila - the computer kicks out choices for my new English name.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Drew. Tate. Julian.
LANGFITT: Scott Kronick runs Ogilvy Public Relations in China and throughout Asia Pacific. After more than two decades and thousands of Chinese staff, he's heard a lot of unconventional names.
SCOTT KRONICK: We had a Popeye, and there's a Robin Hood.
LANGFITT: "Popeye" was a very popular cartoon in China, but where do some of these other strange names come from? Kronick wrote about it in his book, "The Lighter Side Of China." He thinks foreign teachers assigned some of these names to students as kind of a joke.
KRONICK: I think the English teachers that were here during the time were really having some fun. I mean, I can't imagine where, you know - we have a staff member named Morphine - got his name.
LANGFITT: Kronick's favorite name is this guy's.
PHAT SONG: My English name is Phat Song.
LANGFITT: That's P-H-A-T, though Phat says his name also suits his build. We chatted on Voice over Internet.
SONG: You don't see me. I'm really fat (laughter). F-A-T, yeah, I'm really F-A-T.
LANGFITT: Phat, how fat are you?
LANGFITT: And how tall - how many - how tall are you?
LANGFITT: In other words, about 5'8", 220. If this conversation sounds cruel, it isn't. Among Chinese friends and colleagues, fat isn't an insult. In Mandarin, it's more of a statement of fact, sometimes even an affectionate nickname. Phat didn't get his name from a teacher. He chose it himself after drinking with a bunch of Americans in a Beijing bar.
SONG: Phat - the first American slang I learned. It's a black people's slang. You always use this word to describe something cool.
LANGFITT: Like many Chinese, Phat liked the name because it was different, a way to stand out in a culture that's changing but still fairly conformist. Phat asked his Americans buddies if it was a good name.
SONG: And they laughed. They said, that's so weird because it's not a man's name. I said, I don't care because name is for people to remember you.
LANGFITT: Since then, Phat's had many years to change his mind - change his name to something more conventional like David or John, but he hasn't. Phat suits him. Phat is cool. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.