How 2 Years of Giving Chinese People English Names Profoundly Changed My Life
Why I started BestEnglishName.com
I had been living in Shanghai for just over 2 years and strange English names had become the norm. Furry at my coffee shop, Ice my Uber driver, Eleven my coworker, and Ocular my local bartender. I was only reminded of the absurdity when my parents gawked during my weekly calls home.
However, what did get my attention was the effect that these strange names were having on my Chinese peers’ careers, relationships, and reputations. It seemed that people with a name like “Cinderella” were regarded as less human and more like, well, a cartoon. I became aware that often times the person did not understand the implications of choosing a name that was also a cartoon character, an inanimate object, or just plain offensive.
Even if someone chose an English name that was acceptable, I wanted to make sure that the person would have the information necessary to choose a name that he or she felt a connection with. These names would go on to be first impressions, at the top of resumes, on business cards, and ultimately an identity.
The concept of English names felt like a pretty big misunderstanding with a relatively simple solution. While the solution might have been relatively simple — pick a domain name and start a website, for relatively little cost — the next two years unfolded in the most unpredictable of ways.
The psychology of choosing a name later in life
This is something that I personally, cannot relate to. I was given the name Lindsay when I was born, and it has been my name my whole life. But after hundreds of conversations with people who are choosing a name for themselves, I got a peek inside the self-awareness as well as the aspirational considerations that go into creating a new identity at the age of 20.
Contrary to many people’s beliefs, I do not simply give out English names. Rather, I have in depth conversations with people about what they seek in an English name and his or her subsequent new identity.
People come to me with a very clear understanding of what they want in a new name. Sometimes these requests are feasible, other times they can be difficult. Regardless, people have very specific requests, whether it’s a name that is easy to pronounce, or a name that will make people feel calm and trusting when they hear it.
English names are a very strange thing
Among people’s different criteria, there are a few trends. First of all, most people want a name that is unique. But uniqueness is subjective; the idea of what is unique to me sometimes differs to what is unique to the client. For example the name Ada. This name is quite unique in the United States and the UK, but in China for some reason it has gained a lot of popularity. Similarly, the name Evan isn’t incredibly popular in English speaking countries, but in China is overused. Second of all, people want a name that has a nice meaning. This sounds like an easy request to fill, but unfortunately English names have some bizarre meanings. Cameron means ‘crooked nose’. Mackenzie, generally a girl’s name, means “son of Coinneach”. This can be difficult to explain.
Always trust your gut
It was amazing the amount of people who went with their first instincts. Usually a consultation would take between thirty and sixty minutes. The first name that a person liked would often be the one they came back to at the end of the consultation, despite having discussed dozen of others. Names are very intuitive and emotional thing. I have had clients that would very logically choose a name, but for the most part clients would choose based on feeling rather than logic. When a client felt good about the name, I too felt confident that the name he or she chose would represent them well, and more importantly that he or she would feel a connection with.
The weird psychic moments I would have
After a year or so of consultations, I started to feel a little like a name psychic. There would be times where I would bring up a name and the person would have already thought about it, or perhaps they had even had it before. Sometimes I just had flashes of names that would come to me and I would go with it. Who knows where this came from, but I like to think I developed some sort of superpower sixth sense with names. That’s totally normal, right? Whether it was a form of psychic power or not, I was constantly reminded of the emotional connection you can form with people despite being from a completely background.
Then there were the impossible clients
And then there were the clients that I couldn’t please. Of the thousands of clients, I am shocked at how few there have actually been. Only one time did a person walk away from the consultation without a name. And very rarely do people complain about their quiz results. The people that are difficult generally fail to trust the process. Or perhaps they try too hard to force Chinese naming traditions into the English naming culture. It is always my job to make sure the clients have a full understanding of English naming culture, but sometimes it’s hard for people to fully accept a practice so different to their own.
So, they would ask for a name with feng shui elements, zodiac elements, with a random mix of letters, and request that it was a name no one has never been used before. Unfortunately, this simply does not exist. There have been times when clients have asked me to make up a completely new name for them. Sure, technically I could have done it… but I felt that this was against our mission and what we stood for. I didn’t want to give someone a confusing, made up name that was going to be a massive roadblock in the future in the same way that “Soap” might have been.
Why it was the most rewarding experience of my life
When people read the headline that circulated a year ago, “Foreigner finally rids China of stripper names”, I am sure they giggled, and probably thought of some older dude hanging out at home giving Chinese people names like Bill and Alice. But that couldn’t have been further from the team at BestEnglishName.com. We felt incredibly responsible for the role we played and the content we created. And furthermore, we felt incredibly rewarded in the process.
Whenever I tell people what I do, the usually say, “That is awesome! You are like God... That’s hilarious, you could just like, give people any name you want.” That also could not be further from the truth. That was not why we started the site and that was not the business we were in.
Instead, what unfolded was 3 years of conversations filled with empathy, shared experience, and mutual understanding of life and our ever-evolving roles in it, all through the process of picking an English name.
What I Learned
What I learned from these conversations led me to the next chapter of our business and my life. When I spoke to people about their new name, they were usually my peers. The conversation would often drift into other topics — living abroad, travel, studying abroad, and daily life in general. Time and time again, I was reminded how much we have in common, despite our strong cultural divides. Sometimes I would be sitting in a cafe in Miami talking to a client in Wuhan, China about an English name, but in actuality we would be discussing so much more.
From a personal standpoint, I can only describe my decision to start bestenglishname.com as one of those “go with your gut” decisions. I was not necessarily passionate about names. I wasn’t particularly looking to become an internet entrepreneur either. But it all felt right at the time. Now, it makes a little bit more sense. I am incredibly thankful for what I learned and how this experience guided me towards the evolution from bestenglishname.com to Benku8.com .
I decided to leverage bestenglishname.com and its success to create something bigger and to continue the conversation. Benku8.com is a culmination of a group of people’s experiences living in China from around the world, as well as Chinese people’s experiences outside of their home country.
The underlying theme is that millennials around the world have more in common across cultures than ever before. We all live in a virtual reality of the internet, which has exponentially expanded our common ground.
Similar to the peer to peer discussions I would have about English names, we now continue to discuss and understand a multitude of millennial-focused topics. Benku8.com has morphed into a multimedia, multicultural and bilingual platform connecting millennials across East and West. As it turns out helping Chinese people pick an English name, illuminated a beautiful and profound understanding that we have much more in common than we think.