You name it: How International students adopt their Western names

You name it: How International students adopt their Western names

Photo Credits: KIYOMI WATSON / AGGIE

International students change more than just their location once they reach US universities

Many students born with a name more complex than the English-derived “Smith” or “Johnson” have experienced moments of embarrassment or discomfort as teachers or peers attempt to say their name aloud. For many international students attending school in Western countries, there is a common solution: adopt an English name. 

As part of traveling to the Western world — whether to attend university, participate in an English class or settle permanently — some migrants decide to use English names instead of their given names. For international students, taking on an English or “American” name is a common practice. 

“International students usually adopt a Western name because they want to make it easier for them to pronounce their names,” said Wesley Young, Director of Services for International Students and Scholars. “It’s really as simple as that most of the time.”

First-year electrical engineering major and China native Jeffrey Zhang, said that by using his English name, teachers and peers have a much easier time calling his name. 

“It’s easier for other people to call me by my [English] name — in a restaurant ordering food, in class when professors hand back tests, etc.,” Zhang said.

What other benefits are there to adopting an English name? Besides avoiding mispronunciation, many international students say it makes them more approachable to others, gives them individuality amongst their international peers and makes it easier to adapt in their new Western lifestyle. 

Additionally, in regards to Chinese students who might have similar-sounding names, choosing distinct English names may also help eliminate confusion from teachers. 

So how does an international student decide on an “American” name? Sometimes it’s as easy as skimming through a dictionary. 

First-year animal science major Silvia Ye, who left China in eighth grade to attend school in the U.S., said she chose her name after searching through a dictionary and landed on what she thought sounded “cool.” 

Other responses, however, suggest that a little more thought goes into deciding. According to a thesis authored by Garrett R. Ruzicka, a Missouri State graduate student, most of the time, choosing an English name occurs before traveling. Ruzicka reported that one strategy for selecting a name is noticing how some Chinese and American names sound similar — students will oftentimes choose an American name that sounds similar to their given Chinese name or that is the direct translation of their Chinese name. 

Another common influence is Western media, such as American literature, television shows or popular films. Fourth-year computer science major Gareth Yao explained how he chose his name after a famous British soccer player, saying the name also sounds close to his Chinese name.  

Regardless of their names, international students are still susceptible to facing challenges regarding racism and xenophobia while attending school in a foreign country. The Huffington Post reported an incident in 2017 where East Asian students at Columbia University were victims of racist vandalism in their residence halls. Their name tags hanging outside their doors were torn down, while the other students’ names remained in place. In response, Huhe Yan, a Columbia film student, gathered some of his classmates to create a video titled “Say My Name,” where students communicated messages of pride towards their given names. He also wrote an article that shared the same title.

Young said that although a level of difficulty persists in regards to the pronunciation of a given name, which varies depending on the language, it would be great if American students would learn to pronounce non-English names. 

Yao, who has witnessed teasing and harassment from other students, said tolerance and acceptance should be stressed to American children as they are being raised.

“I think it’s still important to raise awareness about ethnicity and equality at a very young age,” Yao said. “So kids can grow up knowing that any cultural or ethnic background is unique and beautiful in its own way.”

Written by: Alana Wikkeling — features@theaggie.org