Chinese names

30 03 2011

Today, during th long hours working on exposure in the clean room, I had a very interesting chat with my colleagues and learnt something very special and strange for us, Western people, about Chinese names and how to address people. A lot of funny things, that can provoke embarrassing situations 🙂

First of all, I must remind that China is generally much more formal than Europe (and especially than Norway) about how colleagues call each other at the working place. If someone got a ph.D. he is going to be addressed with the title 博士, bó shì, doctor, following the name. Even among colleagues, working every day together, they call each other using the title, like 杨博士, doctor Yáng. Also many refer to each other

Doctor Yáng is my colleague that lived long time abroad and when he introduces himself always says his full name 杨毓铭, Yáng Yùmíng, and then ask the people to call him by the first name only, 毓铭, Yùmíng. This is not so common in China, but for him it’s different after 7 years in Singapore. Still at work, when people has to call him at the phone in clean room, for example, or if addressed by a girl, it is always 杨博士, doctor Yáng.

This latter case introduces also a special situation: if a girl would address my friend by 毓铭, Yùmíng, only, then it means that they are close friends, maybe boyfriend-girlfriend, anyway extremely close (part of the same family or childhood friends or something special). If then the name has only one character, as in the case of my girlfriend 潘蕾, Pān Lěi (潘, Pān = family name; 蕾, Lěi = given name), a boy addressing to her by using only 蕾, Lěi, implies the boy is the boyfriend. Yùmíng would never call her Lěi, but always Pān Lěi. Even relatives would refer to her as 蕾蕾, LěiLěi, more than just the one character name! I also use generally 蕾蕾.

Similarly with a boy, for example another colleague whose name is 沈轩, Shén Xuān, nobody at work, especially no male colleague will ever address him as 轩, Xuān, only: that would be very gay! So he is always 沈轩, Shén Xuān, for everybody.. except for me that I call him Bob!!! His name is a nightmare to pronounce in Chinese, so I gave him one of he easiest English name.. as Mathias used the same name, Bob, for my dear friend Svein, after several attempts to pronounce correctly his name!!! 🙂

Also, if 2 people are close and then one wants to use the name of the other person to show the closeness, in a 2 character names, the second character would be used: taking again the example of 杨毓铭, Yáng Yùmíng, a girl very close to him would call him 铭, Míng, because that is the part of the full name that is actually considered as the person name. The second character, 毓, Yù, in this case, is related to the “position” of a person inside a family. Nobody would call a person using the second character only. Brothers might have the second character in common. Anyway, this was not very easy to have explained by my colleagues.

Another way to address people might be using the term 老, lǎo (old), as a form of respect: if for example, the family name was 王, Wáng, a common way to call an experienced person would be 老王, lǎo Wáng, to distinguish maybe from younger people (王 is an extremely common Chinese surname) or to pay respect. With my Chinese name, 安迪, ān dí, I could be called 老安, using only the first character of my name.

Many things so different from our Western customs: I explained my colleagues here that in the work environment in Europe people is much less formal. Calling with the first name, even superiors, is normal. In Norway, even at university, there is very little formality even between students and teachers. It was actually difficult for me to adapt to call the professor by only the family name, if not by the first name, and not add Dr., Mr, Prof. or something more honorific.

I must add that being a laowai I can make more mistakes than the other people: they would laugh a little and then explain me, but I do not think that they would be offended for some lack of necessary social formality from me 😉

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