Taking on an English name


So this friend of mine is from Zimbabwe, and he has one of those names which is easy enough to pronounce, but unusual enough to confound some people who are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar.

I once heard someone ask him, “Have you ever thought about taking on an English name?”

“No”, he replied.

“Why not?”

“…because it’s not my name.”

And fair enough, really.

But anyone who has been around Asians in Australia, and particularly those who are international students or recent migrants, will know that the taking of an English name is pretty common for negotiating Western society.

It often reflects a sort of dual identity. My Indonesian uncle became “Jack” at work but remained “Djoko” to those in his family. One of my soccer buddies is “Joseph” as far as most of us are concerned, but when he goes home to Singapore he reverts to being “Eufai”. Another Singaporean friend is “Qixiang” at university, but “Tommy” at the pub where he works.

Of course, I’m sure this sort of thing has been going on since time immemorial, any time different cultures met and mingled. There was plenty of name-adoption and -adaptation taking place when migrants first arrived in Australia from continental Europe.  In many cases they just took on the English equivalent of their names, which derived from a common (often Biblical) origin. So Giovanni and Yianni became “John”, Eleni became “Helen” and Yorgos became “George”. Sometimes they chose something that wasn’t a direct equivalent but sounded familiar enough – lots of guys named Stavros became “Steve”, Samir became “Sam” and Charalambos became “Harry”.

And I admit there have been times when I have heard someone’s near-unpronounceable name and wondered why their parents hadn’t just named them John or Susie instead. And this is coming from me, someone who is all cultured and shit.

Of course it’s hard not to empathise in the case of some people whose names are really confounding for most native English speakers; for example, Slavic names like Zbygniew, Ljubo or Zdravko. I mean, none of those are objectively any harder to pronounce than something like “Alexander”, but the spelling tends to give people nightmares. And then there are names that can just sound a bit rude in an English context, like the Indian names Kanthi or Kaushik. Surviving high school unscathed is justifiable grounds for calling yourself “Eddie” when your real name is something like “Fakhmi”. And yes, that’s a real Arabic name.

“Huge-in-what? Er, can I just call you Steve?”

I admit I have form in this department. For much of my childhood I was called by my middle name, Harsha, for no particular reason that makes sense. It’s an Indian name, which is odd as I’m not Indian. It’s not a name that I’m particularly fond of personally, but after years of listening to people mispronounce it every way imaginable, or occasionally think that I’m a girl named Marcia, I switched to my first name, Chris. Sure, it’s kinda boring and I share it with countless other people in this country, but when you are a teenager you just want to fit in and feel “normal” sometimes. While I don’t regret it, that middle name would at least be useful to set me apart from the 3 other Asian guys named Chris that I play basketball with.

And when you think about it, there’s something a little dull about that homogeneity we help create by changing our exotic names to more mundane ones. Who wants to live in a world where everyone is a Tom, Dick or Harry, when we could also be hanging with Tom, Rajendran and Zain’uddin? I mean, “Eric” is a fine name, but how many more Chinese boys named Eric do we really need, when they have perfectly good Chinese names to use? (Seriously, I’ve never met anyone named Eric who wasn’t Chinese.) Of course, a degree of homogeneity is important in some aspects of our national culture, to ensure some sort of cohesion of values and adherence to social norms. But surely one’s name, just like cuisine, is one of those areas where migrants and their children can be free to express their cultural traditions and not have to worry too much about being exactly like the Anglo folks next door.

Because – and here’s a pretty important detail as I see it – most “foreign” names are really not that difficult to pronounce. Some seem a little difficult, particularly those that sound different to how they are written; but I tend to think that if you really can’t manage a rough approximation of someone’s name after you’ve heard it, you’re just being lazy. I mean, consider this: a friend of mine, whose father is from Malawi, is named Njala. Now, the “nj” combination is odd to Anglocentric eyes, but in reality it’s easy to say once you’ve heard it. Yet at one place he worked at, it seemed to befuddle all his co-workers so much that they eventually asked “Can we just call you J?”

That to me is just being lazy. And I think it’s sad that we allow some people to wallow in their laziness. Because calling yourself a Jim when you’re really a Dmitri, just so some Anglo-Aussies won’t be weirded-out by it, not only caters for that laziness, but also sets a low bar.

“Oh no, this foreigner has a name which does not match any of the standard 30 names I have stored in my mental databanks, whatever will I do? I think my brain might explode.”

By making someone learn to pronounce your name properly, you’re actually doing them a favour by broadening their mind.

But as I said with my own name, sometimes there’s only so much you can take of hearing your name mangled before you rename yourself “Bob” in a fit of frustration. We had a client at work once, a Sikh fellow named Jasveer, whom my Anglo colleagues called an ever-changing variety of names like “Jasmeer” or “Jasvar”, despite having his name written down in front of us. See, maybe it’s just me, but I figure if you can’t recognizably pronounce “Jasveer”, you’re really just not trying.

And a huge part of adopting a more familiar name is to preemptively ward off the spectre of racism. You may prefer to call it ignorance, xenophobia or fear of the unknown, but it’s a very real factor at play. Research both here and in the US has showed that the name you go by can have a significant impact on your success; job applications with non-Anglo names were shown to be significantly less likely to result in interviews than those with Anglo names, even though the other data contained was the same. Sometimes the line between success and failure, between getting a job or a contract, or even a partner – can depend on small margins and the importance of positive first impressions. And first impressions are hugely influenced by prejudices, even the unconscious ones we don’t admit to.

It appears that this trend is gradually on the decline, as our increasingly globalised world exposes us to a wider variety of names than the rather limited range of British-derived ones that characterised earlier Australian history. And of course, earlier migrants with exotic-sounding names have suffered through the misunderstandings and weird looks, so that our younger generations don’t have to. The President of the United States is named Barack Hussein Obama, for heavens’ sake.

And as ethnic names gradually become more accepted, you may have also noticed a proliferation of Anglo names being spelled “creatively”. If our society is ready to accept white folks with names like Taylah, Jazzmyn and Jaxsen, then surely we have room in our hearts for Gurjeet, Joo-Hyung and Abubakar as well.

Author: Eurasian Sensation

They also call me Chris. I'm a community worker and educator, and I'm interested in things. To observe me in my natural environment... try eurasian-sensation.blogspot.com.

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