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Saturday, February 4, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: Finding and/or Inventing Cross-Cultural Baby Names

A. writes:
My husband and I are having a boy this year and are having trouble coming up with a name that will fit. My husband is Vietnamese/Chinese, adopted by a white family, last name rhymes with Quaker. I am Scottish, Irish and Scandinavian. We want our son to have a name that reflects both sides of his heritage and is unique, without putting him in a box. We want to use the middle name Lee or Li, but haven't been able to find a first name that speaks to both of us. We have already looked at numerous baby name books and what seems like hundreds of websites, and we keep finding the same European names, and a relatively small number of Chinese and Vietnamese names, most of which, while we think they are beautiful names to use if you speak the language, we don't think would translate well in public school in the US - we don't want the Sixteen Candles Long Duc Dong syndrome. Any ideas about finding or inventing cross-cultural names?

I wonder if it would work to find a Scottish/Irish/Scandinavian name that by coincidence includes a Vietnamese/Chinese name? For example, Declan is Irish, but the first two letters are the Chinese/Vietnamese name De, which The Best Baby Names in the World From Around the World says means virtue in China, and Baby Names World says means royalty in Vietnam. Or Camden is Celtic, but contains the Vietnamese name Cam (as well as the De already mentioned), which Baby Names World says means orange in Vietnam. But...finding even just two names that worked that way took a lot of flipping back and forth between the sections of the book, and it's a bit of a reach: I don't think anyone looking at it would think of it as reflecting both sides of his heritage.

Or you could flat-out invent a name, by using a Chinese or Vietnamese name with a typical name-segment from Irish/Scottish/Scandinavian names. But again, I'm not sure anyone would look at such a name and realize it reflected two heritages.

Another option would be to give him a double first name, hyphenated or not. Li Declan, for example, certainly reflects both sides at once, as would Camden Hao or Erik-Ji.

Or you could choose one heritage for the first name and another for the middle name, and swap that order for the next child.

Or you might conclude that although you'd like his name to reflect both sides of his heritage, that might not work with the style of names you like. In which case there are fortunately many other ways to include both heritages in his life, and perhaps the new goal could be to choose a name that reflects neither heritage specifically.

I'm going to turn this over to the commenters to see if they have any other ideas or advice for representing both sides of the family tree in a name.


StephLove said...

I think the name within a name idea would work, IF you were committed to using the shorter one as a nickname some or all of the time, so it didn't disappear into the longer name.

I also like the idea of using one language for a first name and the other for a middle name and then swapping the order for your next child. Lee/Li is a good place to start.

Lee Anders
Finnegan Li

Barb said...

What about some sort of symbolic name to honor the heritages? Just brainstorming here but a place or a noun or a virtue name? (For example, I think I read somewhere
a popular trend is to name Chinese girls after flowers). So maybe finding a "word" name (oh, examples are escaping me- like Royal or Mason or Brooks or something) that works in both cultures. Am I making any sense?

Barb said...

I realize this is a boy baby but the flower example is what sparked the idea for me. (I need to get more sleep).

Anonymous said...

I like Li. How about using it as first name? And Finn: definitely a thumbs-up from me. Or incorporate the two into Finley/Finli/Finlei?

Elle said...

Did your husband have a given name prior to his adoption? (Maybe that's the Lee/Li you're speaking of.) That could be a nice way to honor him.

I have a Vietnamese friend named Van, which I think is cute and strong and simple.

Anonymous said...

My friend is dating a boy (er, I mean man) born and raised in Korea - he has, not surprisingly, a Korean first name, but when he moved to the US for college he decided to go by an "English" name because, for him, it was just easier. Why not use Lee as the first name? I've known a couple boys named Lee and it has a nice, clear sound to it. I've also known a Leland. Or Leo?

phancymama said...

Building on what Barb said, what about finding a concept or important name, number, etc in one culture, and translating it into the other culture. Does the place or town your family is from have a meaning that can then be translated into either vietnamese or chinese? Or an important number in vietnamese or chinese that there is an Irish/scottish name that means that?
Or an animal or plant that it common in Ireland/Scotland translated into Chinese, etc?

The sound of the name may not be indicative of both of your cultures, but the meaning will be.
Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Yikes. Asian girl names seem to be easier than cross-cultural Asian male names. This is stretching it a bit, I think, but here goes.

- Taye. I believe this sound works in Chinese, but I don't know that the character would mean.

- Moe. I believe you could also find a coordinating kanji character with this sound.

- Bo. This could also work.

- June. The girls may have tried to claim this, but it is a gender-nuetral name.

Good luck!

hexxa said...

These are all great suggestions, and the only thing I can add is this: I don't know any Vietnamese and only a handful of Chinese words that I learned while studying Japanese, but I recently came across the Welsh nickname Dai for David, and Dai means "large, great" in Japanese from Chinese. (The symbol for it is kind of like a lowercase t with two legs.) I think it's really hard to know all the meanings of things like this without studying, though--for example, the sound "shi" in Japanese is bad luck, as is the number four, because it's associated with death, but "Shin" is a popular boy's name. But if you have a David called Dai, it's his choice to use the name as much as he wants to, even to change his name legally later, and if there's some unforseen issue with the Chinese or Vietnamese name, it's not inescapable for him.

Anonymous said...

How about:

Martin nn Tin (thinker in Vietnamese)

Martin is very popular in Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland.

Maybe not 'unique', but certainly not overly common and definitely not box-able! Tin to me seems sweet and easy.

Martin Li Quaker -Tin Quaker- is just lovely!

Anonymous said...

I agree that you could get away with a chinese/vietnamese name within a name if you're using the chinese/vietnamese name as a nickname. Camden nn Cam is a great example!

I also like the suggestion of Leo as a first instead of Lee.

mary said...

i see a lot of international coules use Kai as a name

Natalia said...

The suggestions already given are really good, I don't think I can come with any better ones. What I did was take a look at a list of Chinese boys names and see if any of them reminded me of an Irish or Scandinavian name. I found the name Han meaning brave very similar to Hans, the Scandinavian name for John. Then I found Lian, meaning honest, very similar to the Irish name Liam, although they are probably pronounced very differently.

Another idea I had looking at the names is that you may find two names that are from different origins and have different spellings but sound similarly. I really don't know how to pronounce any name in Chinese, but to illustrate my idea I thought maybe Sean and Xan, or Xian may sound similar enough. The idea is that when you say it out loud it could be either name...

I hope you find the perfect name! Good luck!

Rayne of Terror said...

I vote for Kai also.

Tara said...

Perhaps using your husband's given name, or part of it (if he knows it) would work? I have some friends who have adopted three children (from Vietnam, South Korea, and Thailand) and have used part of their children's originally given names as middle names. So Thai Thanh became Cole Thai, and HaJoon became Jae HaJoon. Good luck!

The Mrs. said...

Hmmm... this is a great letter, Swistle. Very intriguing.

To build off of what Barb was saying, what about using something very Vietnamese and translating it into Celtic or Dutch or Norwegian or whichever country you prefer?

Example: Dragons are popular symbols in Vietnam. Drake is old English for dragon. (My hang-up with Drake is that it sounds rhymey with 'Quaker'.) But you get the idea.

The tortise is also a reoccuring symbol. But the only name I could find that is anywhere near mainstream is Kobe... and it's African, not Scandinavian.

The phoenix is another symbol that keeps popping up in Vietnam. Phoenix is a good name. Lee Phoenix 'Quaker'? Phoenix Lee 'Quaker'?

Here's another thought: since you both come from very different parts of the world, what if you focused on the international spirit of this child's heritage with a place name that is special to the two of you? Say, if you met in Oxnard (I'm using this for an example because I can't imagine you using Oxnard for a first name), his name might be Oxnard Lee 'Quaker'. Maybe where you got married or where you went on your honeymoon or one of your hometowns... most places were named after people in the first place; you'd just being doing the opposite! :)

Please let us know what you and your husband decide. Your letter was so compelling! Best wishes to you all!

Mammal said...

I love the suggestion of Lee as a first name. Van and Kai have a similar feel and I really like them paired with your surname too.

Perhaps for the next child-- Quinn sounds very much like the Vietnamese girls’ name Quynh, which means night-blooming flower.

Brittney said...

I have to second the suggestion of Van. What a great name! It wouldn't be confusing at all in school and I love the sound of it.

Good Luck!

Anonymous said...

Sullivan nn Van?

Jan said...

I find it offensive that you don't want to use a Chinese or Vietnamese name because "we don't want the Sixteen Candles Long Duc Dong syndrome." To suggest that giving your child an Asian name would lead to that kind of treatment is offensive (I have other words in mind but don't want to speak too strongly).

There are many Vietnamese and Chinese kids going to school every day in the U.S. with Vietnamese and Chinese names. There are adopted kids who have kept their Vietnamese and Chinese names.

Of course, it is your prerogative to use the name you like best. But please be aware of how it sounds when you give reasons like the above.

Swistle said...

Jan- A. says only that they want to avoid CERTAIN Chinese/Vietnamese names, not all of them---just the ones that don't transfer well to U.S. usage. Which I think is a good and important consideration for all baby names of any nationality. Surely you are not saying it's offensive to avoid using a name that has a dicey U.S. meaning, such as Long Dong? That seems only sensible to me.

Jan said...

Just bringing up that character from Sixteen Candles is enough to make steam rise out of many Asian American ears...just don't do it. There are better ways of saying what she means.

Anonymous said...

I know a Vienamese boy named Tuan, pronounced like Juan. I think his name is nice. And Danh is a Vietnamese boy's name, pronounced Dan would make it easy in the U.S. I agree that using Vietnamese names that are easy to pronounce here would make things easier while respecting his heritage.

Anonymous said...

Oooo, have you considered Liam? You would get both the Li and a nod to your Irish heritage. It might be too popular for your tastes, but some names are popular for good reason.

Megz said...

An interesting question. Here are some thoughts:

Ah seems to be a common prefix in Chinese names. Perhaps a European name starting with Ar would work. Some of these might work but you would have to check to make sure it didn't mean something bad:


Tai is a Chinese name, and Tyrone is a place in Ireland. Or Tyler.

Or Tyson. This could be pretty good actually, with 'san' meaning three in Chinese and he would make you a family of three. Tai-san = Tyson.

Lien is a girls name in both China and Vietnam, however spelt backwards is the English boys name Neil.

Or the Gaelic name Niall is an anagram of Lian.

Good luck. I'll be interested to see what you come up with.

Anonymous said...

I would go for two middle names that honor your husbands background and then have a first name you both love because it holds meaning to you, so say

Daniel Tuan Lee

Did your husband's adoptive parents change his name? Perhaps using his birth name as a middle name could work?

Laura said...

I don't know too much about Asian names, but I know a Chinese girl whose parents emigrated in the 1980s. To honor both their Chinese culture and the predominant culture of their adopted homeland they named her Hao-Ann.
I like the idea of using Lee as a first name, especially, as well the idea of using two middle names, both honoring each culture.

Megz said...

I was also going to suggest An-Sen which depending on the translator I use seems to mean something like peaceful heart or calm the nerves.

However it appears Ansen isn't actually a name like I thought it was. Anson is a name though, and Ansen seems like a Scandinavian version (but isn't).

Anonymous said...

Update: We had our beautiful son in June, and ended up naming him Niko (pronounced "Neeko") Chan Li. Niko is a nickname for the Finnish name Nikolas, Chan was the surname of my husband's mentor and tai chi master, and Li means strength in Chinese. It turned out to be pretty easy in the end - we looked at him and just knew he was a Niko. :)