I’ve written before about my work with students from overseas, and the way in which Asian students have a tendency to adopt “western” names. Although it makes my life easier, I have mixed feelings about this. Many Anglophones rely upon the fact that English is a universally accepted language to make not effort to learn another language, or even to reach for the phrase book when travelling abroad. Deplorable as this may be, not being willing to try to pronounce another’s name seems to be just rude.
It isn’t just Asians who encounter this problem – at first sight many Polish surnames seem to contain more consonants than the tongue can handle, yet by taking the time to ask every Pole I meet how to pronounce their name, any fears have been dispelled. I have some way to go with Sri Lankan names yet though!
The name of course is part of our identity, and in expecting others to change their names we meddle with who they are. I am adopted, so the name I have used for the last 54 years was not the one given to me at birth. I still remember how alien my “birth name” seemed when I first viewed my birth certificate. I’m a Paul, not an Ian. Also I use my middle name, because the first name given to me by my adoptive parents was also my father’s and grandfather’s first name, so Paul became the name of choice to avoid confusion. The other name is meaningless to me. Perhaps this explains my sensitivity to the name changes that others take on.
An article that I read in the Korean Times however suggested that the practice is perhaps not undertaken reluctantly. Adopting a Western name gives many a feeling of being progressive and global, and so become like nick names, representing another facet of an individual’s personality. We also forget that there a Christian communities around the world, and so many are actually christened with these names. A hangover from the cultural imperialism of European missionaries, and one which is not exclusive to Asia as we shall see.
Many of the students this week heralded from Lyon, and it is unusual for us to have more than one or two French students on the course. It seemed appropriate (though incorrect in terms of gender) that one of the Vietnamese students should have adopted the name Bon. Bonne n’est pas? Three letters though; couldn’t be simpler. However that is also true of her Vietnamese name Thi (pronounced Tea, and meaning poem).
It is also probably another sign of my cultural ignorance that I found myself saying “I love African accents” this weekend too. I wouldn’t say; “I love European accents”, I’d say German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish (or as my female colleagues seemed to prefer this weekend: French). However to my ear, which has been attuned to a few words of Kiswahili, but certainly no Yoruba or Setswana and yet regardless of the hundreds of miles that separate the nations I couldn’t tell distinguish a Tanzanian speaker of English from a Nigerian or Botswanan.
Anyway the bearer of the accent was Nigerian, with a fine Yoruba name. I liked the catch lights in her eyes as much as the tones from her mouth so she agreed to be photographed too. She has another name apart from the Yoruba. This is Clara.