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TOP 30 OF 2015 - 18. So what's your English name?

First published on Sunday the 14th of June, 2015, this piece comes in at number 18 in the top 30 Villainesse stories of 2015.

Last year I took a gap year and worked at an international school where students studied English intensively for a year or two before moving to the adjoining high school. Something I realised early on is that most students, if they did not already have an ‘English name’, would very soon adopt one out of sheer exasperation at having their name mangled by the Aussie tongue. Xiaolong became Kevin. Hyung Hee became Jenny. Culture-shocked and jet-lagged, students often did not put up much of a resistance to this change. A friend of mine, now called Harry, recalls how one day his homestay-father just decided that from that moment on he would no longer be known by his ‘Chinese name’, and that his school had already been informed. Like it or not, he was now Harry.

Let me set the record straight: if someone chooses a name they’d prefer for themselves, I have no problem with it whatsoever. When I moved overseas, I chose to introduce myself as Maddi as my full name, Madelle, was so often mispronounced, even in my home nation. Moving countries seemed like the perfect excuse to choose something normal for a change. What I didn’t predict was that teachers trying to scold me would call me Madeline or Madison… So that idea backfired.

My problem is with the idea that if a westerner’s tongue has even the slightest difficulty pronouncing a name, the onus lies not on them, but on the other person to ‘make it easier’ for them by choosing an English name. But people argue that trying to pronounce their real names often ends in embarrassment for everyone involves and that an English name will help them to assimilate with their peers/co-workers/in-laws, as it will be one less ‘foreign’ thing about them. So where is the damage?

Let’s break it down. Has any western expat in any “non-anglo” country ever had to change their name? Do you know of a single person who had to choose a Chinese/Korean/Polish/YOU-NAME-IT name to make it easier for the people living there? Probably not. It is not expected nor enforced on westerners. Which arguably shows that the expectation that students from a non-English background must have English names betrays a superiority complex that we may not have known we had.

If a French student introduced himself as Antoine Réveillère you wouldn’t dream of exchanging those velvety syllables for any English name in the world. What about the lyrical flow of the Portuguese Beatriz Benquerença? There’s just something about western European names that is pleasing to our ears and easier on our tongues than Asian or Eastern European names; probably because we share more linguistic history with those countries, or perhaps it’s because of the ‘romantic’ stereotypes of those cultures. The point is, we’re more likely to demand an English name from a Hương Đức Triệu than we are from a Athénaïs.

There are those that would use our favourite Elizabethan bard to justify English names: “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Perhaps, but is that other name tied to years of heritage and cultural identity? What people don’t take into account is that insisting on an English name is to deem something valuable and often spiritual as not worth the effort. Consider this account given by an Indian American student, “I feel that I have had to change my name to a simpler Americanised form. Not only have I changed the pronunciation, but the meaning is lost. People do not realize the legacy and spirituality my name carries, rather it is pigeon-holed as another "weird" South Asian name.”

What I love is when people with “weird” names insist that people say their names correctly. Korean American actor Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner) says this about his name, “I definitely thought about changing it… Uzo Aduba (Orange Is the New Black)… tells a story about how she goes to her mom and says, ‘Mom, can I change my name because no one can pronounce my name correctly?’ And she goes, ‘Well if they can learn how to say Dostoevsky, Tchaikovsky and all those names, they can learn to say your name.’ And that resonated with me. I was like, ‘That’s right man! You don’t have to change your name for anybody!’ You can just be yourself and make them learn your name.” It’s refreshing to see actors (even young ones like Annie star Quvenzhane Wallis) paving the way for people all over the world to own their names.

Your name is not “weird”. Your name is not “too hard to say”. Your name is not something that you have to camouflage and cover up. Your name is you and it’s your link to your heritage and identity. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

TAGGED IN

  • Culture /
  • English /
  • Names /
  • Eurocentrism /
  • Privilege /
  • Heritage /
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