What's in a Chinese American Name?

While in Shanghai, I met many people who lived in the city and other parts of Asia and during the customary introduction process, a few would give their Chinese name, some their American name, and most individuals would provide both.

Obviously, their Chinese name was their name, given to them by their parents at birth, but I wondered if the same was true for their American name.

Some spoke very little English, but their efforts were to be applauded.  With their welcoming smile and warm nature, a man would extend his hand and say "Hello, my name is Nicolas" or a little girl would point to herself and simply say "Mary."

Talking to a Chinese man, whose English was very good, I asked him how their American names were assigned. The answer was simple.  In our generation, as he was about the same age as I, it was one chosen by the individual and was a name that could be changed as often as desired. For example, he told me he had once gone by Michael, but had recently changed it to Nicolas, to reflect his admiration for the American actor Nicolas Cage. The younger generation, like the little girl named Mary, often had their names given to them by their parents.

Chinese children are introduced to English at a very early age. While in our equivalent of elementary school, they begin taking English language classes, where their American names are used. Do you remember taking a language class in grade school? I took French for years, where my name was Bridgette, said with a French accent and different from the American version of Bridget.  It's the same principle, however the name is carried out into their lives and used when they are speaking the English language.

For days, I had wondered just what goes into a Chinese American name.  This was the perfect example of sometimes, it just helps to ask!