Say Asian first names correctly

When presented with a non-English name like Siobhan or Rhys, it’s expected that you’ll say it correctly after learning its pronunciation is different from the way it is spelt. These are non-English names, but because they exist in the Anglosphere, we are societally accustomed to making the effort to learn them.

The same can’t be said for non-Western names, especially Asian first names. A double standard exists in society and “name-based microaggressions” have detrimental effects on those who have been made to feel their names are too challenging for Westerners to try to say.

What are name-based microaggressions?

  • Consistent mispronunciation of a name

  • Giving someone a nickname without permission

  • Shortening a name because it is too long, or “too difficult” to say in its entirety

  • Cultural assumptions about where a person is from, or supposedly from, based on ethnic markers in their name

  • Innuendos masked as double entendres or puns 

According to research by Columbia University’s Dr. Ranjana Srinivasan, the most difficult interactions for those subject to name-based microaggressions are “people in a position of authority — namely classroom teachers and company executives”.

Leigh Morgan, a teacher at Otahuhu College, says, “When the individual who mispronounces a name is in a position of responsibility or holds the dominant power in the relationship e.g. teacher-student, I personally believe it can make the person with that name feel that they aren’t a priority, or that they have no value to those around them.

“It also can damage a student’s self-esteem through continual mocking by their peers which was initiated by those with power whether this was done on purpose or not and their continual mispronunciation. Additionally, it displays a lack of effort, sensitivity and respect.”  

When students come from Asia to study in Western nations like New Zealand and the United States, many come with a new, English name. In fact, US research finds that half of Chinese international students at universities adopt Anglicised versions of their names, e.g. “Xian” may become “Alex”. As Xian Zhao, one of the study’s authors says, “the practice of adopting Anglo names among ethnic minorities and foreign individuals may be intended to smooth interactions with majority group members, but it may also have negative implications for minorities themselves.”

That is, there’s a negative association when it comes to self-esteem for those with adopted Anglo names, as opposed to those who keep their original name.

According to Hong Kong-based communications consultant Sean Upton-McLaughlin, this is even something that happens when Westerners in high-performance jobs move to Asia for work. Westerners continue to feel discomfort when trying to pronounce or learn Chinese names, he explains, “feeling uncomfortable on its own can readily be forgiven – it is an unwillingness to try that really bothers me. 

“Some are embarrassed when trying to pronounce unfamiliar words. Others insist that Chinese names are too hard to pronounce. It is therefore no surprise that one of the more common phrases one hears among those new to China is ‘do you have an English name?’

“To many, learning how to pronounce a name may seem wholly unimportant in the grand scheme of things. However, it can easily relate to our own attitudes and prejudices, which will directly affect each of us as we continue to learn and grow.”

Indeed, repetitive mispronunciation, shortening of names, unsolicited nicknames, and expectations of Anglicised names send a clear message that one person is smaller and less important than the other; as if they aren’t a “priority” in someone senior’s headspace.

In an op-ed for EducationWeek, former teacher Punita Chhabra Rice writes of the ramifications of incorrect pronunciation. “Research has found that students’ ‘socioemotional’ wellbeing and worldview can be negatively impacted by teachers failure to pronounce their names properly, and can even lead students to shy away from their own cultures and families”,” Rice says.

This is familiar territory for many teachers. Jennifer Gonzalez, who runs the website Cult of Pedagogy, exclaims, “Mutilating someone’s name is a tiny act of bigotry.” Rice also points out Adam Levine-Peres’ series “Project Bronx,” and says, “[The project highlights] that mispronouncing a student’s name fails to establish an environment of trust, sends the message that perseverance is not important, and communicates disrespect.”

Morgan has been the MC for Otahuhu College’s sports awards for the past six years and is often faced with names that require time and attention. “As a teacher it is my responsibility to read, remember, articulate and learn about student names correctly,” Morgan says.

“It takes humility to acknowledge you are struggling with pronunciation, but it is OK to apologise and ask for help. I have always had warm and supportive responses from colleagues and students. Other strategies I have used to navigate this obligation is to check with students about what they feel comfortable with to ensure their wishes are being respected, as they won’t necessarily advocate for themselves, especially with someone in a position of authority. And of course, practice, practice, practice.”  

Understandably, humans are not expected to naturally know how to pronounce all names not in their native language. In fact, those with Asian first names, or names in any non-English language, become accustomed to explaining the pronunciation of their name when they meet a new person. When presented with this situation, it’s polite to ask a person, “I just want to make sure, how to I pronounce your name properly?” and it is then your task to remember it. Asking and taking 10 seconds of your time shows respect. Alternatively, do your research beforehand and use the web resource VOA Pronunciation Guide and get it right the first time.

If someone chooses to offer you a shortened or easier-sounding version of their name, that is their prerogative. However, Westerners should take away any expectation that this is the norm.  

- Asia Media Centre