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Just call me Styrofoam, because I'm feeling buoyant

Updated: 2012-06-18 13:34
By Karl Arney ( China Daily)

The first day teaching new Chinese students English is always interesting. There's the desire to capitalize on their excitement over meeting me and establish a good classroom relationship. And I have to deal with the awkward shyness of many students, which prevents them from speaking out loud.

After going through this process enough times, a lot of it does slowly start to feel normal. Still, one thing about encountering hordes of young learners here in Zhengzhou, Henan province, always keeps me on my toes. That thing is the simple-sounding task of roll call.

What makes it interesting has nothing to do with pronouncing Chinese names, as most students have chosen English names before they meet me.

The interesting part is deciphering which of those names belongs to whom and how some of the names were chosen at all.

Just call me Styrofoam, because I'm feeling buoyant

When I started in 2009, I was given classes of college students who, in hindsight, had pretty normal names. At the time, though, I was amused by one class having a LeBron, followed immediately by a James, and the first of many students calling herself Yoyo. It turned out that this batch of students had lived on campus in close proximity to their previous foreign teachers, who guided them into fairly reasonable name selections. After them was when it really got out there.

I quickly learned to view no name with a preconception of what the student might look like, or what their gender might be. A steady stream of boys taking names that in English-speaking countries would be considered effeminate taught me to ignore my instincts and wait to see who raised their hand, when I saw "Joy", "Eva", or "Star". Then, just as I started to think I had a grip on things, I got a boy named "Lady Gaga" and just about gave up.

The girls get in on the fun, too, taking names like "Player" and even "Demon" just to keep me on my toes. There are also students with nonsense names like "No 1", "Fanta", and "Soul Mate", which provide little clue of anything. It's an odd display of either gender equality or confusion, depending on how you look at it.

On the other end of the spectrum are boys who take the kind of names you'd expect rebellious teenagers to choose, such as "Shark", "Snake" and "Assassin". They're often the class clowns, the ones who put forth what pass for bad-boy acts ... until their phones go off to reveal Backstreet Boys ringtones.

Many students who pick unconventional names do it as a lark, having no interest in using them outside of class or of going abroad. Sometimes, though, one comes along with the best intentions and still misses the mark.

I taught a boy at my old school who was determined to keep the name "Precious" despite numerous teachers suggesting he change it before trying to transfer to the United States.

This boy was painfully awkward socially, with a soft, stuttering speech pattern, hopelessly poor English, and questionable hygiene - with a name like "Precious" he didn't have a chance. Yet he refused to back down on it, leaving us scratching our collective heads.

The appeal of choosing your name is obvious - it's something few get to do, yet many fantasize about in their youth. Still, many of these students' choices make a strong case for exactly why it should be done for us.

Then again, with Western celebrities naming their children everything from "Brooklyn" and "Apple" to "Fifi Trixibelle", who can blame the students? Perhaps they're actually ahead of the game, a game where the John's and Jane's of the world are fast on their way to antiquity. Forget "Karl", I'm changing to "Styrofoam".

China Daily

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