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Okay having traveled a bit around this country I commonly hear native taiwanese calling one another English or western sounding names. Am I simple fooling myself into thinking this is the case, being a total novice of mandarin? Or do they actually adopt English names among themselves?

Why is this?

  • @pnuts Perhaps it's not their given name at birth but most people i've talked to have an english name they go by. Not their familial surname. – easymoden00b Dec 31 '14 at 19:18
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It is very common in many parts of Asia and Africa for people to adopt Western names, especially English ones, and to use them even in local contexts. So in terms of travel, do not be suspicious if a stranger says he is Christopher or she is Emily.

In some cases, it is simply can be one of many names someone adopts. In traditional Chinese culture, one can have many names: a childhood name, a school name, a nickname among friends. It is nothing unusual, then, for someone to take a Western name for one of these. In other cases, it is a colonial relic; I've met many Sri Lankan Antons and Filipino Ramons on that account. And in some countries, particularly British-influenced ones, it will be referred to as one's Christian name, from giving someone a baptismal and/or confirmation name.

But the practice is widespread and far from restricted to practicing Christians or ex-colonials; Taiwan's foreign minister is David Lin, and there are enough Korean Graces to inspire a whole documentary entitled The Grace Lee Project.

Some other reasons include the following:

  1. Those in circles with international exposure, for example, those who work for multinationals or in tourism, may take a Western name in the (often accurate) belief that it will make them more approachable to foreigners because their local/native name is too difficult to pronounce or is distractingly "exotic." I imagine this would be especially true where the native language is tonal.

  2. It can serve as a socioeconomic indicator— as a mark of being of an educated, cosmopolitan class, or simply as someone who is modern. Companies too choose brand names that sound foreign— even if they are literally nonsense— to capitalize on the appeal of foreign goods. (nor is this anything new; Häagen-Dazs was founded by a Polish Jew in the Bronx).

  3. On the flip side, a Western name can help sidestep social hierarchy that may be imbued in native names (names in some cultures include generation or caste markers, for example).

  4. Of course, some people just prefer to be called by a nickname, and the fact that their preferred nickname is of foreign origin is incidental.

As far as the selection of names, this too varies widely. In some cases people choose a name after a person or character; saints, yes, but I have a Korean family friend who took the name David after someone on Sesame Street. In other cases, especially for names taken as an adult, the adopted name is an approximation of the given name: Rae Won becomes Ryan, Jing-sheng becomes Jason. But it's also possible that they simply like the sound or the meaning of a name, even if it is not commonly used as a name in Western countries. I met a boy in Malawi named Gift, as he had been a happy surprise to his parents.

  • I'm from Sri Lanka. It's true there are many Antons, feenandos and Pereira's here. However, they are their only legal name (unlike Chinese who have Chinese and English). This happened during the Christian influence in post 1550 and it's very common to use those names for the surname. Filipinos have such names too (their only name), but they tend to have an English first name. Having an English name renders a slightly lower class here though. – Ayesh K Jan 1 '15 at 19:14
  • That is the answer i've been looking for. So strange, from a europeans perspective, for even the conjuration of our phonology to muster respect in these societies. – easymoden00b Jan 2 '15 at 15:54
  • "Having an English name renders a slightly lower class here though" i highly doubt that – astroanu Apr 24 '15 at 11:15
  • I always found the way they get their names fascinating. For every Jack Sparrow there's a guy who when faced with his first day of English class had the teacher go down the row pointing out the kids "You are... Sam, David, Anne, Michael, George..." – the other one Feb 20 '17 at 10:51
  • My mainland Chinese friend, got her 'European' name in 1945, as a one year old. As was habit in the family. Many in her family did move to Europe and North America later, but the habit was much older than plans to move to Europe. – Willeke Feb 20 '17 at 16:36
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Choster's answer is a very good look at the ins and outs of this.

To answer directly however, why do people in Taiwan have western names; the reason is chiefly that Chinese (Mandarin and Taiwanese being the dominant varieties in Taiwan) is a tonal language.

This means that where in the English alphabet we might spell a Chinese word as "shi", in Chinese this can actually be said with varying tones to make a number of different words. Take this famous example:

Shi poem

This means for example that you might have a girl her spells her Chinese name a certain way in English, but when you read it you're saying it completely wrong because you are not using the right tone. Even if she explains and demonstrates the proper way to say it, a lot of westerners have trouble getting it right. Many will even have trouble with the very concept of tones and how there can be several different shis.

You don't encounter this problem in for example Japanese, which has a pronunciation that is generally quite easy for westerners. An Englishman will have little trouble saying Akira Takada reasonably accurately where Chen Yi Hua will most likely be mangled beyond recognition.

All this being said however in my totally anecdotal experience Taiwanese people using English names is less common than Chinese people doing the same. I have met several Taiwanese who introduced themselves with their regular Taiwanese name. I'd be very curious to know if there is any data to support this and the reasons behind it- perhaps parents purposefully choose names with more neutral, westerner friendly tones? Perhaps its a sign of rising confidence and internationalization? Perhaps I just met a certain type of Taiwanese and a different type of Chinese. Who knows.

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