Have you ever thought about what your name might sound like in another linguistic or cultural context? That single proper noun, something you have known and identified with since before you had the ability to say it yourself, is often one of our most valued possessions. For me, it’s what makes me unique. Skylar is a very uncommon name – so uncommon that my mom thought she’d made it up, and the only other Skylars I’ve ever met have been boys, or born after the year 2000. I’ve cherished the distinctiveness of my name since I was a kid. There were always two Ashleys, a handful of Mikes and Johns, and every girl seemed to have Sarah or Lynn as a middle name at the very least. Then there was me, who only looked up at the wrong time if there happened to be a Tyler in the room.
Today, I had my students read “What’s Your Name Again?” an article in Newcomer Magazine about “foreign” names, and whether to keep them in a Canadian workplace. This topic is highly relevant to my class, and almost any class I’ve ever taught. Especially among the Asian population, it is extremely common to have an English or Christian name that you go by instead of your given name. The article specifically focussed on the use of English pseudonyms in the workforce, citing a study from UBC about ethnic versus “Canadian” names on resumes. The study found that immigrants who opted for a more English-sounding name had a much higher chance of being called back than those who kept their given names.
My class ended before I had a good chance to pick my students’ brains on this subject, although we did begin a conversation about the reasons why they had changed their own names. One of my students changed his name from “Sasha,” a very common short form for Aleksandr, to “Alex.” I was confused at the need to switch, since Sasha is actually quite a well-known name in North America, but he informed me that when he moved to Montreal (his first place of settlement in Canada) he didn’t like the way it sounded with the French accent – more like “Sacha.” So rather than have his name butchered forever, he opted for the easily pronounced “Alex.” Another student, a woman from China, admitted that she’d picked her English name in a Chinese English class many years ago by flipping through a book with English names and taking the first one that was easy to say and spell (it’s “Amy”). Other students who have changed their names have obviously chosen what seems to be the closest English-sounding name to theirs, with some changes in spelling. This seems to have worked out well for the most part, but I don’t really understand the logic behind picking a name with an ‘l’ or an ‘r’ in it if you have a hard time with those consonants. Other non-English-speaking immigrants make the mistake of picking random English words that they think sound or look nice – hence the unfortunate existence of Asian girls with names like “Circle” or “Orange.”
One student, who goes by his Korean name although he has a Christian name, pondered the potential of switching to his Christian name once he goes to university in the fall. The consensus from the class was that it should really be his decision, and he should pick whatever he is comfortable with. He divulged that he’d also played around with spelling in hopes of making his name more pronounceable, for instance by removing the space between the two syllables that make up his name. After he wrote some possibilities on the board, the class noted that a change in spelling wasn’t guaranteed to reduce confusion. This is especially true if you don’t know the nature of English well enough to pick the right vowel-consonant combinations. His options, in my opinion as the only native speaker, were more likely to lead to mispronunciation than his actual name; but how could he know that?
After class, I mentioned the day’s reading/speaking topic to a veteran co-teacher. She recalled a student she’d had years before from China, who went by the unfortunate (by English standards) name of Cow Dung. This teacher had done her best to explain to this man, tactfully, why he was not getting call-backs for interviews. But how can you tell a person that their name means something offensive and, let’s face it, sounds like a Bart Simpson prank call? The man insisted that his name was a noble and beautiful one in his native language, and that should be enough for anyone. “I wonder where he is today?” mused my coworker. “I never did hear.” Maybe this is because this man finally came to his senses and changed his name!
I must admit some reservations to the actual premise of having to change one’s name in order to better integrate into society. It is ridiculous that employers should ever look at a name and make assumptions about that person; however we all know this to be a fact of life. A case study of the pointlessness of judging based on a name: my mother. Born and raised in our small, homogeneous Canadian city, she married my father, a Trinidadian immigrant of Indian descent, and took on his equally Indian last name. She has worked for the same non-profit organization for as long as I can remember. Her very first boss, after several years of working with her, left the organization, and his parting remark to my mother was along the lines of this: “It was great working with you! Can you believe we almost passed over your resume all those years ago because of your last name? Good thing we didn’t!” My mom, understandably, was stunned by the insensitivity and inherent prejudice in his comment. When I learned of this incident years later, I was – and still am – disgusted by the blatant display of stigmatization to which so many people are still subjected.
So: to change, or not to change? I consider my own name, and how it would be twisted or warped in other cultural contexts. I know that speakers of Romance languages think of the direct translation of my name, Sky, and wonder why my parents gave me such a masculine name. That’s because “sky” as translated into these languages takes a masculine article: le ciel (French), il cielo (Italian), o céu (Portuguese) and el cielo (Spanish). Some languages pronounce the letters in my name differently or not at all, and others don’t officially have letters like ‘k’ in their alphabet. And if I go East, I’ll have further problems having to change my name into different characters. Would it be easier for me, then, to just pick a nice-sounding name from that culture? I don’t know if that’s a question I’m prepared to answer right now, but it’s one I think I need to be aware of as a teacher and a student of global culture.