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Receiving a Name

February 8, 2006

Elizabeth Eliason - China

At the beginning of each school year at our college, it's a challenge to learn the names of so many new students in our classes. If it's their first term ever having a foreign teacher, they want us to give them English names.

At the beginning of each school year at our college, it’s a challenge to learn the names of so many new students in our classes.   If it’s their first term ever having a foreign teacher, they want us to give them English names.  At first, I was uncomfortable with this practice.  Shouldn’t I be learning their Chinese names instead?  But they insisted.  It was customary.  So I consulted websites with names and their meanings and extracted a long list of possibilities.

Instead of just letting the students choose from the list, I told them that I’d prefer them to have English names that matched the meanings or sounds of their Chinese names.   This turned out to be an opportunity for personal interaction with each student.   Often I learned that a Chinese name had no particular meaning that the student was aware of – that parents had just liked the sound of it.

With each student standing next to me speaking his or her name aloud several times, then repeating it myself, I hoped for inspiration for just the right name for each eager young person.  Looking at their faces, then at the name list, I proposed names with similar meanings or sounds while silently asking myself, “Are you Wendy?” or “Are you Luke?” and so on through more than eighty such conversations in two first-year classes.  

Students were gleeful when we’d settle on their English names and were delighted to learn that these new names did have specific meanings.   Each student thanked me before bouncing back to his or her desk.  This surprised me, but I soon understood that each had received this new name as a personal gift.  Later, with time to reflect, I recognized that within these brief interactions, the students’ joy and the promise of developing relationships with each of them were their gifts to me.

An oral activity during the first week or two of first-year English classes is playing name games with students’ new English names.   These games are fun for pronunciation practice and also give me a chance to hear each student speak English.   Many of them have studied English for six or seven years, but their proficiency and confidence levels vary widely.

One of the games asks students to learn a partner’s name and how to spell it, then come to the board in groups and write the partner’s name from memory.  This is harder for them than it sounds!   After each group writes their names, we read and say each name aloud, together correcting pronunciation.  One time, after several groups had finished and sat down, I looked at the board for new names.  When I came to one new addition, I paused.  Was I reading it correctly?  A student had written “Anyway” on the board.  Surely this was not the English or Chinese name of any student I’d conferred with!  A few students saw the humor.   Chuckling to myself, I wondered if there might also be a “Whatever” in the class.   

I asked, “Who is Anyway?” and a young man in the back row raised his hand.    I asked him to speak with me at the end of class.  

When we chatted, it turned out that he was not on the official class roster and that he just wanted to sit in on my class during a free period.  I said he was welcome to come but that he might not be able to participate in pair or group oral English activities.  This was OK with him.   I asked if a teacher had given him his English name.  He said no, that he’d chosen it for himself.   After I told him that “Anyway” wasn’t really an English name, I asked if he’d like a “real” English name, and he enthusiastically said he would.  We walked to the board, and as I wrote the name that had come to me, I said, “How about Andy?  That’s a little bit like ‘Anyway.’”  He smiled and agreed.   Then I told him that Andy was the name of my younger son.   He was even more pleased.

Now Andy comes regularly to class, is among the most attentive students, and actively joins in the singing and pronunciation practice.  Along with student carvers from each of my classes, he came to my home for a pumpkin-carving demonstration before our Halloween party and Jack-o’-lantern contest!   I’ve started making extra copies of class materials for him, and he wrote a note of apology last week when he had to miss class.  Even my “official” students don’t always do that!

My connection with Andy is just one of the latest in a continuous stream of encounters with Chinese students and staff and other people on campus as well as with others outside in the community.   Everywhere, we strange foreigners are greeted at first with curiosity.  But if we smile, we’re met with yet wider smiles!  You can feel your heart open.   Sometimes there’s time and willingness to try to converse, but more often, our exchange is limited to just those smiles.   Of everything we do here, whether at work or in life, I believe this simple openness to others is among the most meaningful, with a lasting effect.     

As I have been so “warmly welcomed” – to repeat a favorite Chinese phrase – so Andy, warmly welcome to my class!

Beth Eliason
Beth is a missionary with the Amity Foundation through Church World Service. She serves as an English teacher.

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