I was just reading an article (this one) and found the following passage:
"A name is, after all, perhaps the most important identifier of a person. Most decisions are made in about three to four seconds of meeting someone, and this “thin-slicing” is surprisingly accurate. Something as packed full of clues as a name tends to lead to all sorts of assumptions and expectations about a person, often before any face-to-face interaction has taken place. A first name can imply race, age, socioeconomic status, and sometimes religion, so it’s an easy—or lazy—way to judge someone’s background, character, and intelligence."
In my mind (disclaimer, a mild cold may be impacting synapse firing) this immediately connected to students yesterday in my distribution class starting to tell everyone their "English names." I abhor the idea of "English names." I didn't allow the students to finish the sentence and introduce these names. There are several reasons why.
1. Names are hugely important. The name you have shapes how people treat you and how you perceive of yourself. Our names are very much wrapped up with our identity. There have been societies where people had a use name and a true name, and they rarely shared the true name, if they shared it at all. Because naming a thing is powerful. And nicknames, especially the type that students give themselves or are assigned for some middle school or even elementary school English class are horrible. Way back in 1996 when I arrived in Korea was the only time I ever taught in a situation where "English" names were the norm. I immediately found the idea repugnant.
Of course I was struggling with the Korean names, but wasn't that MY problem that I needed to get over, rather than the student's problem? Isn't this Korea?
And how could a student, based on a very limited recall of "English" names be competent to give themselves a name (I think I had 5 Jennys when I arrived in my first middle school girl class-- a completely impossible situation). How could I, based on a communication impaired momentary chance to get to know them bestow a decent name on them? How could any such name beat the name they already had?
Back in 1996 I did succeed in getting a few people to think outside the box-- I still remember the student who decided to call herself Blue-- but I had a lot of young boys who named themselves after the family names of prominent NBA stars. From the next year when I started working in girl's middle school I never used "English names" with students again.
2. From the above you can rightly assume that Korean-chosen "English names" are often boring, repetitive, and just plain wrong. As the passage above explains names indicate things about religion and ethnicity, and that's why Koreans have names like Jeong-eun (who tried to introduce an English name yesterday). When you read a name, you expect something. Tiffany is the name of a blond, blue-eyed girl who chews gum and she's probably a cheerleader. Brittany is definitely a WASP. Grace is past 50, probably past 70 years old. All three of those names are common among Korean women in America. Jack has spikey hair, maybe freckles, and he probably likes off-road dirt-bike riding or has an ATV that he's rolled a couple times, although he didn't tell his parents, because he's a total risk-taker. And yes, Jose is probably Hispanic and Jamal is probably African-American, just like Jeong-eun is Korean and Nguyen is Vietnamese and someone who took the name Mimi has just got to be from China. So when a Korean takes the "English name" Vino (this was an example from a newspaper article a friend linked on FB last week, and yes, it said quite clearly that this was his "English" name, not his nickname or his "Italian name") then something is just wrong. Bible names are for Christians. End. of. Story.
3. I think people should respect the names their parents thought long and hard about, and if they don't want to use those names, they should just legally change their names. Yes, I did the latter. I don't think there is something wrong with legally changing your name. If your name really does not conform to your self-image, or does not work for you, then change it. Removing a deadbeat dad's name, changing the spelling entered by a dyslexic parent on a birth certificate, or in my case, finding a unique name-- each of these is totally legitimate. I find changing names because people find them "hard" much less legitimate. Let's celebrate diversity, for crying out loud. Every time someone "simplifies" their name from a perfectly legitimate Polish or Greek or Hungarian name to something that sounds more "English," I feel the world has become a little bit less colorful. It makes me think of Ellis Island and all the European immigrants who had their names simplified on arrival, or who later on decided to just give up the struggle and change the spelling. That's crazy.
My maiden name is Blomberg. Not Bloomberg. Bloomberg is pretty darn well known, as a name-- not that there are so many more Bloombergs than Blombergs, but because of Bloomberg news and mayor Bloomberg-- if you type "Mayor B" into Google is supplies "Bloomberg." If you type in the family name Blomberg, it helpfully supplies results for Bloomberg as well, because you probably made a mistake. So I had to fight with people to say my name Blom and not Bloom (the meaning, of course, is the same) throughout my life until I changed my family name (after I got married). And of course living in Korea Blomberg was no picnic (Korea has no double consonants and so the BL and RG were a big problem, as of course were the R and L. I can remember more than once trying to make airplane reservations (or even check the reservation) and spending what felt like 15 minutes spelling my name. B as in Boy, L as in Love... In other words, I have felt the pain of people with unusual or hard to spell names, but you just have to keep spelling and correcting. Is it really that hard? I'd rather honor my name and correct someone than adjust to match the lowest common denominator.
4. Finally, I'm not saying that people don't have the right to pick racially neutral names for the kids they are raising in the US-- the data seems to show some very frightening things about how hard some opportunities are to get with a non-white name-- but shouldn't we really be working to get past that kind of nonsense instead of avoiding it through whitewashing? But as long as I am in Korea and my students are in Korea, I don't see a reason why they should be going around changing their names because a name like Jeong-eun is too "hard." (Jeong-eun isn't even hard. When people get names like Hyeon-gyeong then English native-speakers can get tongue-twisted, but Jeong-eun is easy!).
And I'm going to keep enjoying the benefits of having a name people remember (even if they are unsure how to say it).
What do you think? Do you subscribe to that whole "use of nicknames in the workplace/ classroom breaks down Korean cultural barriers and helps people work/converse more freely?" Should I let Jeong-eun tell me her English name in a class on Korean culture and society?
CedarBough T. Saeji
p.s. I did take the name Therese in high school French-- but it was my ancestor's name and my teacher required me to take a French name, it wasn't that I wanted to pick one.