Teaching: What’s the point of a middle name and how can an only child have siblings?

In my oral classes this week, we have been talking about our family trees.  I’ve learned a lot about my students, but also made some interesting observations about Chinese families that I thought I’d share with you.

  • In one class, I went on a huge tangent about American names. They understand the concept of a first and last name, but it was really difficult to explain the importance of a middle name. I said that it is another name that your parents give you. Sometimes it is a name that holds some importance, but other times it is just an extra name that is on your birth certificate, and you use it when filling out important documents. Nobody ever calls me Kimberly Marie Sine. They just looked at me quizzically, thinking, Why do you have another random name if it has no purpose? It’s actually a pretty valid question, I guess. In Chinese, a person’s name is extremely meaningful. Their family name comes first, and then is followed by one or two characters for their first name (they don’t have middle names). Lots of students have names that mean strength, honesty, pure, clever etc. When picking out English names, my students constantly asked me, “But what is the meaning of this name?” I tried to assure them that the meaning wasn’t very important, because most people pick a name based on how it sounds and don’t actually know the meaning of their own name! (Including me– I have no idea what Kimberly means!)
  • I was curious to see how many of my students were only children. At first when I asked students if they had brothers or sisters, lots of them said yes, and pointed on their family tree to their cousins. Since they are only children, many consider their cousins to be their brothers and sisters.
  • However, despite China’s one child policy, a handful of people in each class were not only children. I knew that there were exceptions to the one child rule, but didn’t really know how prevalent it was for people to have siblings. If both parents are only children, ethnic minorities, or live in  a rural area, they are allowed to have more than one child. It is also possible to pay hefty fees in order to have another child. So most of my students with siblings were either from a rural area, or pretty wealthy and could afford to pay the fees.
  • We talked about relatives that we admired, and I asked my students if there were any black sheep in their family. They were very hesitant to single out any family members, but several of my best students said that they were the black sheep in their family because they were the first ones to attend college. It was really inspiring to see that these students had worked so hard to get where they were…and that they have really bright futures ahead. I am very proud of them!
  • When I showed them my family tree, they were shocked that my dad and mom came from families with five and eight kids, respectively. I showed them an old picture of a huge Farrell family Christmas/New Year’s gathering, and some pictures of cousins from Hayley’s wedding this summer.  So– shout out to all the Sines and Farrells: my students really enjoyed “meeting” you all!

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One thought on “Teaching: What’s the point of a middle name and how can an only child have siblings?

  1. Holla back. We are thinking of you too. I love the family name bit. The Francis M thing could present a whole topic of discussion itself. Keep the content flowing.

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