“All the Brendon’s I’ve known have been tall!”
“Alisha? She doesn’t look like an Alisha.”
“All Vietnamese/Chinese/Korean have Nguyen/Chen/Kim as their last name.”
More often than not, we stereotype and make assumptions about other people and their culture just by their names. And usually, names are one of the first information we acquire about a new person in our lives. For example, I already know the names of my colleagues for next year, even though they are currently working at another school and will not physically be in Vietnam until late July. And oddly enough, their names are actually the only thing I know about them.
But a name is so much more than just a name.
A name is an identity.
Some names have meaning and significance, like how Abigail is derived from a Hebrew name that means “my father is joy”, or how Ichiro (一郎) means “first born son“.
Our given name is something we carry with us from the time we are born to the time we leave this world. It is often the one thing that don’t change in a life full of changes. It identifies us in a crowd, separates us from others, and we feel a connection to someone who shares the same name as us.
So why are we not making more of an effort to learn our students’ names?
Many of our students go by a “Western” name, even though the majority of the students are Vietnamese. It helps the expat teachers, because Vietnamese names are difficult to pronounce… but should that stop us from learning their real names?
In Kiang (2004), many Asian American students give testimonies to their experiences with hard-to-pronounce names. One notes the positive emotion and connection she felt when a professor pronounced her Vietnamese last name correctly.
Shouldn’t we be doing the same for our students too? Shouldn’t we be allowing, no, ASKING, our students to identify by a name that they have a strong connection to, something their parents thought long and hard about to give to their child, instead of an easy-to-pronounce Western name that they got just because they were coming to an English speaking school?
If we can pronounce names like Tchaikovsky, Niamh, Scwarzenegger, and Mikhailov, we can learn to pronounce Dinh Ngoc Truc Anh too.