An original version of this article appeared on The Guardian on March 16, 2016:
Times – and parents – have changed. These days, it’s not only celebrities who pick random words to name their babies. However, in a world where the most popular baby names are relatively unremarkable – last year in the UK, they were Amelia and Oliver – it’s still unusual to meet an Angel, a Money, or a Sashimi. But I have.
I am a student at the University of Hong Kong. As is Fragile Chan, a business student aged 20. Chan decided to adopt an English name when he was at school, because it is considered prestigious in the former British colony.
“I started using ‘Fragile’ when I was 14,” he says. “I first encountered the word in my English class and I chose it as my name because I liked how it’s pronounced.”
Chan says his name makes it easy for others to remember him and it’s an easy conversation-starter when he meets new people. But in his experience, having an uncommon name isn’t always pleasant.
“I am tired of explaining my name to others when I need to introduce myself. Some people even mock me for having a ‘fragile heart’,” he says. Now Chan has decided to change his name to Nathan. “I would like to be less weird in formal situations,” he says.
For students with unlikely names, the university experience – which regularly involves meeting new people and trying to forge friendships – can be affected in ways most Toms, Emmas and Jameses may not even be able to contemplate.
Students’ confidence can be knocked by how people respond to their names, says Denise Tang, a sociology professor at Hong Kong University. “There is a possibility that it can undermine your self-esteem when others make fun of you.”
Not every student considers their unusual name a burden, however. Xanthe Bodington, 22, a Greek student studying communication design at Robert Gordon University in Scotland, says she has never thought about changing her name because it is a big part of her identity.
“Having a name like Xanthe is a real icebreaker,” she says. “A lot of responses are hugely positive and the most common is: ‘Your name starts with an ‘x’. How cool is that?’”
Bodington says it is fun to watch others struggling to pronounce her name. “It makes my close friends feel knowledgable when people outside our friendship circle mispronounce it, and they can say it correctly with ease,” she says.
“Living with an unusual name at university has been my social secret weapon, and I enjoy it when someone makes an effort to get it right.”
The downside to having an uncommon name, however, is that it is hard to buy personalised items with your name on, says Bodington. “I remember how excited I got when I found a mug with a letter ‘x’ on it.”
Teng Yu Rong, 19, a law student at King’s College London, has learned to laugh off jokes about her name. Yu Rong, her birth name, has the pleasant meaning of “abundance of glory” in Chinese. But in English it sounds, unfortunately, like “you’re wrong”.
Teng says she was always scared of getting an answer incorrect in class. “I didn’t want to hear my teacher pretend to be the first person to come up with, ‘Oh Yu Rong, you’re wrong!’,” she says.
“I would pretend that it was the first time I’d heard such a clever line,” she adds. “I used to question my parent’s decision to give me a name that would also be the running joke of my life. Now I tell myself that I’m unique.”
Teng adds: “Being able to find the humour in my own name has taught me that there can be fun when we don’t take life too seriously.”