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If you turn to any page in a Chinese dictionary for names in Mandarin, you may not come across a name like Sugiarto or Gunawan. Honestly, it may not even matter to you now because you will never come across them in your part of the world, say the United States of America or Ghana.

There are many Chinese people around the world that are recognised by their races and faces that they are Chinese. Yet their names certainly do not sound anything Chinese. In fact, you might think they are adopted! For instance, the Chinese surname Lim is spelt as ‘Liem’ amongst Indonesian Chinese. This had been the case for many years when the Dutch administrators had tried using the Dutch spelling and pronunciation conventions to translate Chinese names. So you might have heard of the famous Liem Siew Leong, Liem Siew King and Kwik Kian Gee (Indonesian coordinating minister of economics and finance 1999-2000; minister of national development planning 2001-2004).

Do you know that David Beckham has Chinese characters inscribed on his body?

To be recognised as Chinese and not having a Chinese name can be a big deal for people in Asia. Those in Indonesia had never been allowed to speak, study or even display Chinese characters, cultures or traditions in public or even within their own private dwellings during the dictatorship of ex-president Suharto,. So from this group, emerged generations of Chinese Indonesians, who neither speak nor read Mandarin. To a certain extent, they have become quite creative with their names so it can be spelt and easily pronounced with the English alphabets.

Do you know that David Beckham has Chinese characters inscribed on his body?

It might also interest you that Chinese people who have embraced religions such as Christianity and Islam, have also adopted either Christian and Muslim names. John, Richard, Rickie, Anthony, or Desmond will be followed by the Chinese surnames. Or Mohammad Amin Teo or Azhar Tan. In Singapore, these Muslim converts are registered with the Majlis Ugama Islam and they carry with them an identity card bearing their Muslim names. So don’t be surprised when you meet a Chinese person who introduces himself as Mohammad Hassan or David Setiawan.

Conversely, many non-Chinese who are studying Mandarin, married to Chinese or have interest in learning the language, have the urge or need to translate their names to Chinese writing. At kindergarten, my teacher had already given me a Chinese name which I continued to use for more than 16 years throughout my education. The name was inscribed in awards and certificates wherever it was related to Chinese, like the Chinese Chamber of Commerce Singapore. My Mandarin name was also used in a newspaper article.

It is not as easy to translate names into Chinese names. There are millions of Chinese characters and each has a meaning and meaning is value. If you pick the wrong one, you might end up being mocked and misunderstood. After many years of using the same Chinese name, I realised mine is a funny one. See the first character of my Chinese is ‘Ha’ which literally means laugh. Students started calling me Ha Lao Shi which means Laughing Teacher or Teacher who laughs (like a lot.) It is nice, I get lots of laugh everyday thinking about it. I have started using a different though as they couldn’t pay attention in class everytime they have addressed me. Well these are pre-school kids, and I have lots of fun teaching them.