Zhongguo and Meiguo

My brain is all over the place lately, which makes sitting down to write a challenge. When I’m like this, reading is usually the best way to get myself settled. It seems kind of like a seasonal thing for me; the dramatic shifts between winter and spring and fall and winter appear to unsettle me somehow. I grew up in Florida, so it doesn’t seem like such an odd thing, if I think about it. It takes time for the body to adjust to the new. Although after twelve years, you’d think I’d have it by now…

I just finished reading Simon Winchester’s book, The Man Who Loved China, and I have found myself wondering about all kinds of things that came up in the writing.  (I highly recommend the book.) One thing that I was pondering today was the–seemingly human?–behavior of changing the name of a country so that it fits your own country’s language. For example, in the English-speaking world, we call China, well, China. But in China it is called Zhongguo, and America is Meiguo.  The Finnish call their country Suomi, but in English it is Finland. This seems to be more common than not, which puzzles me a bit.

I think it might have particularly stuck in my mind because last Saturday we had friends (a father and his daughter) over for dinner, and the teenager half of the friends goes to a school with quite a few Chinese exchange students. She mentioned that most of them choose “American” names for their time here. I questioned this, and my husband suggested that it was pretty normal teenage behavior: they want to fit in rather than stick out. He then recounted a story of this first job, busing tables at a Chinese restaurant. When the owner introduced himself, he gave his Chinese name and then said, “But you can call me Vince!”  His name in Chinese was difficult for Americans, so he made it easier for them.

Admittedly, the idea of having a different name for a different place is kind of appealing. When we travel or move to a new location, it’s an opportunity to reinvent ourselves, and a new name can be part of that. But I think more often than not, and this is a totally unscientific opinion, people change their names because it’s harder for the people of the new country to pronounce foreign names. And this seems like kind of a shame to me. Names are important; they’re a big part of who we are, whether or not we think very much about it. It feels…almost disrespectful, I guess…that we might not take the time to learn how to say someone’s name in his or her own language.

I’m probably over-thinking this, as I often do with things I wonder about.


1 thought on “Zhongguo and Meiguo

  1. Jean

    I’ve often been told I overthink things. However, we are who we are and who’s to say others don’t under think things?



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