Respect in a Name

I often work with individuals from the international community in my day job. The list of home countries is quite a lengthy one when I start thinking of who I’ve met in the last 13 years. One of the policies that I try to enforce in my department is that although there will be misunderstandings at times due to cultural and language barriers – we will do our best to be respectful to each other at the most basic level. Some things just don’t translate well – such as humor – and I warn everyone to be careful in that domain. I also ask everyone to be patient with each other – to ask for clarification before jumping to the conclusion that offense was intended on a subject.

Difficulties with names are a common situation that we run into. Recent studies seem to be supporting the concept that when sounds are not exposed to humans before the age of six, our brains won’t form the connections necessary to both hear and recreate those sounds with accuracy. If this is true – it explains some of the complications involved with correctly pronouncing someone’s name when it stems from a language that the individual trying to say it wasn’t immersed in from childhood. This can be extra problematic for a native English speaker when we encounter a tonal language. One can understand on an intellectual level that changes in tone will change the meaning of a word entirely, but one may not have a brain equipped to actually hear those changes, much less be able to form them well.

With names, which have meaning in every language, to mispronounce the sounds even slightly can result in calling someone something insulting instead of something beautiful or strong. I’m sure when people from native Asian communities travel to the West they encounter this problem quite a lot. And it is likely frustrating to some degree for both the speaker and the listener when trying to overcome this barrier. Because of this, I’ve noticed that young folk from China or Corea or other Asian cultures seem quicker than they ought to be to adopt a local name while they are here.

It is my feeling that Westerners will stumble and stutter over Eastern names – but that those bearing such names should give more opportunities for speakers of Western languages to try. I know that it won’t always – or even often – be perfect. But there’s a certain respect involved here – respect for Eastern cultures. Respect enough to keep making the attempt. Perhaps the individual bearing the name will have to be forgiving of those of us with difficulties over tonal vocabularies, but there is some value in not always giving members of a country like America the easy way out every time. By requesting, politely, that we use someone’s true name instead of something Anglicized (think Xi versus Sue), you’re expressing that you have value, and your language has value. That your ancestors and their culture have value.

America today is a country of immigrants. Unfortunately, the changing of names deemed complicated has become a common habit here. My own family name should be MacSimidh, which really isn’t that difficult to pronounce. But because it looks difficult, at some point in history it was changed. Now when I look it up there seems to be mostly references to some magical faerie story or some such. What a shame – I rather like my ancestral family name. I feel a bit cheated that somewhere hundreds of years ago one of my ancestors allowed the name to be altered into an English name by some common clerk or another.

I have a Japanese friend who just told me a story that bothered me quite a lot, although he seemed to shrug it off. He said that he used to have a generic English nickname given to him by an acquaintance who claimed his own name was too difficult to pronounce. I can’t remember the nickname offhand, but it really was very bland and random… something like “Bob” – which has no relationship at all to my friend’s Japanese name. Not sound-wise, not meaning-wise…not in any discernible way. Apparently he just snatched a name out of thin air and began calling my friend by it. I have to say that my friend’s name really isn’t that complicated. It sounds very much like it looks.

Yes – there is something to be said for adapting to the culture of a new country. Learn the language, learn the traditions, respect the laws – adjust to the culture of the land. But…you don’t have to give up your name. I believe Westerners can learn. Americans can add Asian names to the greater United States culture. I’m not saying that it will always be easy. Some names are harder to form than others. Perhaps the owner of the name will have to forgive that it won’t always be perfect – that accents will be involved, and that some sounds just can’t be heard at all by the person in question. But I don’t think that names should be given up so easily just to be polite. If you have a traditional Asian name (and I of course understand that Asian Americans/Canadians may not), ask that the people around you use it. Maybe it will be imperfect, but over time, it will be added to the common vernacular like all of the other difficult names have been – names like Duchovny or Beauchamp or Giannopoulos or Bienkowski or Gottlieb.

If you encounter someone who says, “Oh, ha, ha – that’s too hard to say. I’ll just call you George instead” - don’t let them get away with it. Insist that they make the effort to use your name. If they refuse and call you George anyway, don’t respond to it. Wait until they try to say your real name. If they get huffy about it, it is their problem, not yours. You are only asking for the same respect that they would wish for themselves.

It really is a matter of familiarity. If you don’t keep handing the locals verbal crutches, eventually they won’t think that names like Zheng or Ryong or Yamanashi or Nguyen are so strange to see, hear or say. Eventually – it just becomes another name one expects an American to possibly have. It becomes part of America.


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