Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Why I won't change your name if it is Big Bird or Free Fellow

By Daniel T. Parker

I'm not going to take sides on the "English names" debate except to throw in a couple of observations as to why I have decided to keep my big western nose out of it, and why I sometimes will decide to put my nose in...

a) My overriding idea is that, as long as I'm teaching in a foreign country, my students' English names are like our user names on email lists; they're just handles and nothing more. If someone picked Shiney Sprout as their Hotmail or Yahoo! name, would I object? No. So I'm not going to correct "Esthur's" spelling or tell "Big Bird" or "Free Fellow" that these are not cool girls' names. I'm too busy trying to figure out why my 11-year-old son has chosen the name "Creeper33" for his email handle...

b) I also get the feeling that adopted names are symptomatic of static and dynamic culture. As foreign teachers, we're not part of our students' native culture, and we're often not part of their age-culture, either. When I was in China, my students phonetically translated my name into a Chinese phrase translated as "Iron Rake Climbs Mountains" and they thought it was cool; they were a little disappointed when I opted for Zhang Shi Zhe, their second choice. One (the afore-mentioned Big Bird) explained that it was, of course, a proper Chinese name, but "Iron Rake Climbs Mountains" just sort of sounded cool.... and the American Indian drops of blood scattered in my veins agreed with her.

c) Although I try to remember and use students' real names as quickly and often as possible, nicknames certainly serve their purpose by making a student memorable. Thus, this semester in Korea, I could call Free Fellow and Smile by their names much quicker than I could the Julies and Julias and Joannes and Joys.

d) However, if I find a student who is planning to go to America (which is probably much more likely, at least easier, here in Korea than in PRC) I may suggest a name alignment, as I did when Sopie (pronounced "Soapy") told me she wanted to do graduate work in the States. I simply told her that her name's proper spelling and pronunciation was Sophie or Sophia, and pointed out the image Americans would have in their mind if they were introduced to "Soapy".

But, other than that, I'm determined to stay out of it. But whenever I meet up with a fellow Western English teacher who wants to get involved in their students' English names, I stay out of that, too.

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