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Nancy Yao Maasbach: What does a Chinese name mean to Chinese–Americans?
China Minutes
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Nancy Yao Maasbach: What does a Chinese name mean to Chinese–Americans?

Can Chinese–Americans living in the United States take on an English name to replace their original Chinese name in order to integrate into American society? Interestingly, this is not the case and in fact such a change does not necessarily lead to a positive outcome. The new generation of Chinese people have gradually come to realise that their Chinese names are full of history and culture. Indeed, they are the “roots” they carry around with them and an important part of their cultural identity. They have called on all Chinese–Americans to use their original Chinese names, and many people are also using this message to demonstrate their resistance to racial discrimination.

How do Chinese–Americans view their Chinese names and do they experience any problems using them in the United States? How can Chinese names be better accepted by American society? In a recent and exclusive interview with China News Agency’s East Meets West column, Nancy Yao Maasbach, director of the Museum of Chinese in America, which is located in New York, shared her opinions about her own personal experiences as well as those of her family.

Nancy Yao Maasbach has been the director of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) since 2015. She is also a lecturer at the Yale School of Drama and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations of the United States. She received her MBA from Yale University and her BA from Occidental College. She is the former President of the Yale–China Association, one of the oldest non-profit organisations in the United States dedicated to enhancing Sino–US relations.


Can Chinese–Americans in the United States enhance their integration into American society by using English names?

Integrating into American society can have many positive effects, including assimilation, a better understanding of white people’s culture, the retention of one’s own personality rather than being stereotyped and being respected for any cultural differences.

For example, my father’s Chinese name is Yao Ce while his English name is William Yao. His nickname is Willie, a very American name. I have often wondered how my father managed to make so many friends at work; maybe it’s because “Willie” portrays a sense of familiarity. Everyone knows the name Willie, and in fact there’s a famous baseball player called Willie (Mays). Perhaps my father’s American colleagues thought, “Does he like this baseball player? Maybe Willie Yao knows something about baseball...”

Nevertheless, if you tell an American that your Chinese name is Yao Ce, they won’t have any familiarity or association with the pronunciation of “Ce” so they will only ask themselves “What is Ce?”.

For most Chinese people, their Chinese name has always been buried deeply within their heart. Although I was born in the United States, I am very proud to have been given my Chinese name first. As a result, I think I became Yao Nanxūn first. If anyone who understands Chinese hears my Chinese name, they will ask, “Nanxūn, who gave you this name? That person must be very well-educated”. Compared to Nanxūn, I think my English name Nancy is so ordinary.

Pic: Chinatown, New York, USA. Credit: China News Agency, Liao Pan

The seemingly simple Chinese name actually reveals an individual’s relationship with his/her family, history and culture. What are the reasons for Chinese–Americans living in the United States giving their children a Chinese name?

The decision to give a child a Chinese name is dependent on many factors. Some people think that it is good to give a child a Chinese name, but what is more important is how that name is chosen. It would be extremely difficult to choose a good Chinese name for a child if the parents know little about history and culture. Even my mother, who studied Chinese literature, found it very difficult to give her children Chinese names, and in the end she had to change them over and over again because she didn’t think the names sounded good enough.

A very popular trend among Chinese–Americans involves using an English name that sounds similar to a Chinese name. For example, my mother’s Chinese name was Gong Tiānxiá, so my father called her by the English name Tina because he thought it sounded a lot like Tiānxiá. My brother’s Chinese name was Yao Jiemei so my father called him James and my original name was Yao Nanxūn so he chose Nancy for me. It’s more about combining Chinese and English names together, which is common practice among Chinese–Americans.

Pic: The teachers at Ding Hao Chinese School in Philadelphia use pictograms to teach children to recognise Chinese characters. Credit: China News Agency, Liao Pan


In the film “Shang Qi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, Shang Qi’s father said: “(Chinese) names are sacred. They not only connect us with ourselves, but also with our ancestors.” How do Chinese–Americans in the United States view their Chinese names?

It depends on each individual’s circumstances because many Chinese–Americans, such as the second, third and fourth generations, do not even know their Chinese names. There are not many Chinese–Americans who can speak Chinese and they rarely understand how their Chinese names should be written or formed.

Many Chinese–Americans may have ditched Chinese, and those who don’t understand the language at all cannot even remember their Chinese names, which is difficult for them.

People belonging to my generation who can speak Chinese are all studying Chinese as a major or using it as a second language. They all say to me: “Nanxūn, it is so surprising to me that you can speak Chinese since you were born here in America.”

A name is the simplest and most direct representation of an individual’s culture. What is the difference between keeping and using the original Chinese name when living in the United States compared to changing it to a culturally English name?

I think both options have their advantages. However, in some ways, if Chinese–Americans keep their original names, it will encourage Americans to be more aware of cultural diversity. For example, Russians living in the United States don’t change their real names and you can instantly recognise them as they are very different from the common American names. In fact, this practice is gradually becoming a trend in alphabetic languages. There are also Japanese who will not change their names because Japanese itself is a toneless language, so there is no misunderstanding in English pronunciation. This in turn brings opportunities for people to develop an understanding of these foreign language names.

I think we should also highlight the diversity of Chinese names. For example, “love” and “heart” are commonly used in Chinese names, and they can be accepted by foreigners due to their level of knowledge. If one day we insist on using “Xin” to represent “heart”, then slowly but surely Americans will begin to understand that “Xin” means “heart” in Chinese.

Another example is “Dawei”, which is often used to correspond to the English name “David”. The name “Dawei” is also very biblical. “Da” and “Wei” represent greatness in Chinese, which makes it easier for Americans to understand.

Pic: The streets of Chinatown in San Francisco, USA. Credit: China News Agency, Liu Guanguan


As part of the identity movement, Gen Z Chinese immigrants are increasingly using their Chinese names in the United States. Does this mean that Chinese names will be more widely accepted in America in the future? And what can we do to make Chinese names more accepted?

I am encouraged by the fact that the younger generation want to keep their Chinese names. They have grown up in a more affluent environment and are generally more confident. As a result, they will ask themselves: “Why can’t I use my Chinese name? Why not? My Chinese name came first.” But the fact is that it is difficult for Americans to pronounce some Chinese names accurately, such as “Xūn” in my name, so there are certain things we can do to make Chinese names more acceptable to Americans.

If Chinese names can have a more systematic pronunciation system, Americans may come to recognise some of the “familiarity” I mentioned earlier. If a Chinese name sounds familiar to an American, they will start to want to understand a different language and the culture behind it, which offers more opportunities for acceptance.

Pinyin is currently the easiest method. Chinese classes taught in Pinyin are offered in middle schools, high schools and universities across the United States, and more Americans have become exposed to the Pinyin system. However, compared to English names, Chinese names are much more complicated so Pinyin alone will not suffice. Chinese names involve not only pronunciation, but also the recognition of Chinese characters. For example, “Tom” doesn’t mean anything except an English name. My daughter’s English name is “Evangeline”, which is a Christian name that means messenger of good news. However, not many people know the meaning and Americans just treat it as a proper name. In contrast, if the common Chinese name “Dawei” is used, rich meanings are evoked.

Although it may be easier to use Pinyin, many Asian–Americans with Chinese names, such as those from Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and other countries, never learned Chinese this way. People from these Asian countries use the same Chinese name but spell it very differently. The Chinese names of Singaporeans are spelled directly in letters and, like Cantonese, these spellings are more acceptable to Americans than Pinyin. For example, the sound “ch” in English is also spelled “ch” in Chinese names in Singapore and in most Cantonese names, but the corresponding spelling in Pinyin is “qi”. The same Chinese name is spelled differently in mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore, which can be confusing and difficult for Americans to understand.

But it is not necessarily true to say that we have to make changes. If we continue to change in order to make Americans understand, the situation will not improve. We need to know why Chinese names are difficult to accept in the United States, and the most important question relates to how we can teach Americans to understand these names.

What we really need to do is teach Americans the diversity of Chinese culture. In addition, traditional media and social media can also play an important role in promoting Chinese names and providing more space for Americans to understand them.


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