Like any successful circus act, I try to begin each course I teach with a crowd pleaser. And nothing elicits as reliably entertaining, baffling, and bizarre material as this one simple question: "What's your name?"
Don't get me wrong, the students answer in utter earnestness. Which is exactly what makes it such excellent cocktail party fodder later on.
Unless you are, like me, a fake teacher in China (which you probably aren't, since my blog is banned in China - that's right, I'm BANNED, like Salman Rushdie. Doesn't that make you want to read more?) you are probably wondering what could possibly be so goddamn hilarious about such a benign question.
Allow me to explain. The Chinese language demands a lot from the English speaker that our tongues and throats and ears are just not equipped for, which makes most names nearly impossible for many of us to pronounce correctly. So most Chinese people who have even minimal contact with Westerners or ESL give themselves (and/or their children) an "English name." In a perfect world, I would just have my students use their own true names. After all, isn't it a bit lingo-centric to expect others to change something so closely tied to cultural and personal identity, just because it's inconvenient for us? However, in reality, my attempts generally result in accidentally addressing someone as an age-inappropriate body part or household appliance, inevitably causing classroom decorum to give way to raucous laughter and ridicule at my expense. Not a good way to command respect and authority. Never let a 3rd grader know that they can do something you can't. Trust me, they can be ruthless.
So, English names it is. Only these names are chosen by someone who has absolutely no means whatsoever to gage what is an even marginally "normal" name. (And I'm not one who usually champions the "normal". )
Here they are, some of my favourite "English names":
- Cute-sy names abound. Most commonly Coco, Candy, Mickey, Mimi. Even Juicy, though I'm not sure you'd call that cute-sy. And of course, Kitty. As in Hello Kitty.
- Bonker (I couldn't keep a straight face for that one.)
- Skeletor (The parents wanted a "strong" name.)
- Rambo (A little shit disturber. The mother was constantly chasing after him, "Rambo, get back here!!")
- Lots of old man names for pre-schoolers, like Abner or Wilson or Harry.
- Riskle. In fact, this child was trying to say Race Car, but talks like he's got a mouth full of marbles, and it came out sounding like "Riskle", which is what the teacher wrote down on the class list. The kid, not having a clue about spelling, never disputed it, but surely continues to think his name is indeed Race Car.
- Money. Money.
- Tiger, and Lion (both quite common)
- McQueen (as in Steve, I assume?)
- Bobo (I once had a class with two kids named Bobo.)
At my new public school job (in contrast to private language centres where huge sums of money are doled out to ensure the students learn something), the level of English is so abysmal that the question "What's your name?" is often met with a resounding reply of "What's your name!" A whole new challenge. In a class of 45 students, 20 don't have English names at all. This leaves me to either gamble on attempting their Chinese names, or give them a new English moniker, which they will surely forget within five minutes, if they ever understood that it was meant to be their name to begin with. Of the remaining 25 students, six of the girls are named Alice, and five of the boys are named Peter. Effectively rendering the names useless, for my purposes.
Normally, I'm all for individual attention and fostering the teacher-student relationship. But last semester, I taught a total of over 800 students. So these days I'm settling for "Hey you!"