Each character is carefully selected out of thousands. Selected. Reselected. Debated. They can represent family history. They can represent parents’ hopes and blessings for the future. They can represent when and where a child is born. They tell a story.
For Ying Shan (Doris) Zhang, the precious characters above are represented in English as Zhang, Ying Shan.
When she was just 10-and-a-half-years-old, Zhang immigrated to Canada with her mother. It was on entering the country that her lifelong battle with name mispronunciation began.
Born in Beijing, China, Zhang says that in Chinese culture, names are rich in meaning and history.
“Because so much is ingrained in my heritage name, when others mispronounce it and when they try to brush off that mispronunciation, I do take it personally as a minimization of my individuality and also my history.”
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Making up more than 20 per cent of the Canadian population, immigrants add culture and diversity to the country, part of this is by maintaining cultural names. Mispronouncing someone’s name might seem harmless, but it has a profound effect on a person’s sense of identity and now is increasingly considered a form of discrimination.
Like a river bank slowly eroding with time, mispronouncing someone’s name can wash away pieces of a person’s identity and self by diminishing their self-confidence, feelings of value and worth.
Mispronunciation has a far deeper impact than simply being an inconvenience.
A recent study by Indranil Chakravorty highlights the importance of why name pronunciation matters.
According to Chakravorty, “A fundamental tenet of equality, celebrating diversity and inclusion is how [an?] organization or society deals with the immigrant professional or ‘foreigners.’ The ability to correctly pronounce ‘foreign’ names is one of the fundamental and most obvious demonstrations of respect one accords to a fellow human.”
Now as a 31-year-old PhD candidate, Zhang says having her name distorted began when her elementary school teachers automatically pronounced her last name incorrectly.
“They did not take the time to ask me, ‘How do I pronounce your name? Or, ‘What is the correct pronunciation of your heritage name?’ But instead, they just went ahead with the English pronunciation as if that’s how the name should be pronounced.”
Zhang isn’t the only one who has struggled with this. For 19-year-old Rachelle Valenzuela, her name is constantly mispronounced. Rachelle, pronounced like (Ray-shell,) is assumed to be Rachel (Ray-chul) or Rachelle (Rah-sh-elle).
Valenzuela immigrated from the Philippines to Canada when she was 12-years-old and was surprised to find that people had a hard time pronouncing her name, considering it’s not a traditional Filipino name. Growing up, she would often give up on correcting people.
“When people would ask me my name, they would say it and then they would say it wrong. But I would try to correct them one or two times … they would just say, Rachel (Ray-chul),” she says. “So I was like, that’s close enough. So I don’t really bother asking them to pronounce it right again.”
Valenzuela says that in grade school, teachers would rarely pronounce her name correctly and even if they did, they would forget it the next day. Being shy, and after having to correct people so many times, she says that she just got tired of it.
“Whenever people would call my name I didn’t feel like they were calling me … they weren’t calling Rachelle. So there was a point actually where I had forgotten how to say my own name. I had to ask my parents again how to pronounce my name.”
Similar to Valenzuela, Zhang’s long journey with mispronunciation led to actually stopping using her heritage pronunciation when she introduced herself to English speakers.
It wasn’t until someone took the time to listen that Zhang’s perspective changed. After her PhD supervisor asked how her cultural name was pronounced, and went the step of learning the correct pronunciation, everything changed.
“One day, one person finally sees you and appreciates all of you, including who you were before migration, and encourages you at the same time to re-embrace what you left behind.”
With a shy demeanor, dark black hair and a sunny personality, Valenzuela says that she learned how to speak louder and say her name clearly.
“I think it’d be nice if people take the responsibility of pronouncing people’s names. I think that’s just common courtesy. It makes me feel seen, makes me feel heard when people say my name correctly because they talked to me.”
But over time her perspective has shifted, she says that now her previous mispronunciations represent a change in herself.
“I feel like Michelle and Rachel could maybe represent a more cowardly version of me. One that doesn’t know how to speak for herself and … goes along with everybody.”
When asked what she would say to others in a similar situation, she says, “Do not be afraid to speak up to tell other people how to correctly pronounce your name.… Trust me, if someone has mispronounced your name enough times, I feel like you’ll lose a part of you.”
CHANGING THE NAME
Often during immigration people decide to change their cultural names to become more anglicized, including Zhang. Changing names can help with issues like mispronunciation and misspelling. For her, choosing to change her name to Doris was part of embracing her new culture. It wasn’t just about anglicization, nor was it her first name change, instead it stemmed from a positive excitement at immigrating to Canada.
With a soft, gentle voice and light laugh, it’s not surprising that at birth Zhang was given the first name Ting, which means in part femininity and elegance.
But after struggling with various childhood illnesses and with the guidance of a temple monk, her parents chose to rename her Ying Shan, which means winning over all the coral in the sea. Although the change was supposed to help bring health into her life, Zhang felt a sense of disconnect.
“I had a difficult time connecting with my Chinese name.… It’s because it wasn’t the original name that I was given at birth. I loved my birth Chinese name. I felt a huge connection to it and I felt like it represented me,” she says.
So when the opportunity presented itself she willingly made another change.
“When my mom told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to immigrate to Canada and you’re going to be using English in that new country.’ I was so excited and I said, ‘Hey, can I get myself a new name?’”– Ying Shan ZHANG
“When my mom told me, ‘Hey, we’re going to immigrate to Canada and you’re going to be using English in that new country.’ I was so excited and I said, ‘Hey, can I get myself a new name?’”
In a nod to the symbolism attached to Ying Shan, Zhang now goes by the first name Doris, which means goddess of the sea. Although she chose the name for its personal connection, it is also easily pronounced in Canada.
In light of her experience choosing an anglicized name, Zhang’s research likely has a personal connection. Reflecting on a study she is conducting on Chinese international students who choose an anglicized name, Zhang says sometimes changing your name is a matter of making life easier instead of combating issues like mispronunciation, misspelling and name recognition.
“They eventually figure, ‘I’m just going to adopt an English name. It’s a common name. It’s easy to spell, easy to pronounce, easy to use. This will just make my life easier.’”
A paper by Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan suggests that a person’s name can potentially impact more than mispronunciation, it can also affect their likelihood of getting a job call-back. Among the study’s conclusions,
“Discrimination is an important factor in why African Americans do poorly in the labor market. Job applicants with African American names get far fewer call-backs for each resume they send out.”
In Chakravorty’s research, he notes that in the United States almost a third of immigrant professionals change their names to sound more “American.”
Sinela Jurkova says immigrants in Canada see that too. She’s the diversity services coordinator for the Calgary Catholic Immigration Society, which has been helping immigrants and refugees for more than 40 years. She says that hiring is a considerable factor in name change.
“They found that they are discriminated [against] when applying for jobs. When they have Westernized names, their resume at least is included in the scope for selection.” She says that one reason for this is a lack of diversity training within organizations and this can contribute to “some kind of unconscious or conscious discriminatory thoughts. They prefer Canadian names.”
But not all newcomers see their heritage name as a potential problem, especially in comparison with other issues. For Menbere Agidie, she doesn’t think that having a cultural name deters you from getting a job. She immigrated to Canada in the hope of finding a better life, a big part of this concept was through job integration.
Having spent the vast majority of her life in Ethiopia, Agidie arrived in Canada nearly three years ago, and says that one of the biggest problems finding a job wasn’t her name but her experience.
“When we apply to some jobs, they’re asking for Canadian work experience. So that was a challenge.”
Successfully finding a job, Agidie works at the Immigrant Education Society as the empowering youth through employment program co-ordinator. After securing a job herself, her current position entails helping young people with job training and work experience.
MICROAGRESSION OR IGNORANCE?
In 1993, Marva Ferguson immigrated from Jamaica to Calgary. Nearly 30 years later, she says that it was the best thing that she ever did but it wasn’t without its challenges. Upon immigrating, Ferguson wasn’t able to transfer her previous education into the Canadian universities, and decided to re-do and expand upon her education. She was surprised by what she found inside the classroom.
“I didn’t see myself in the classroom. Predominantly, I was taught by white educators … and when I also looked at some of the information in the textbook, it was presented about racialized people as a deficit, meaning that we were in need, we needed a lot of support.”
Upon seeing how racialized people were portrayed, Ferguson remembers thinking, “That’s not who I am. That’s not what I know about myself.”
In what can only be described as a kind and caring power-house, Ferguson isn’t one to back down from a challenge.
Currently an assistant professor at Mount Royal University, she actively challenges preconceived notions through her work at the university and her research that touches on topics such as microaggression, anti-Black racism and critical race theory.
Although changing to a common pronunciation or supposedly easier-to-pronounce name is a welcoming idea, sometimes it’s not a choice. Ferguson explains that many people are unwittingly subjected to name changes through a mixture of technology and cultural ignorance.
“If I have a name that you can’t pronounce, then you’re going to shorten my name,” she says. “Or you’re working in an organization and … they often will say to you, ‘Oh, your name is so long it can’t fit into the computer system so we have to shorten it. No, you don’t shorten a person’s name … you adjust the system.”
“The microaggression is this whole power dynamics of feeling that you have the power, and you use those subtle behaviors of naming the person to make yourself feel comfortable and not taking into consideration how that other person is feeling.”Rachelle Valenzuela
In junior high and high school, Valenzuela says she was subjected to teasing and was unwillingly called Rachel.
“I would tell them several times how to pronounce my name correctly but because everyone is used to saying my name a certain way they would joke around it, even if I try to tell them, ‘No, you say, Ray-shell, they would say, ‘Okay, Ray-chul.’”
After multiple times trying to correct the pronunciation, she eventually went along with the teasing. “I felt kind of bad whenever they would do it. I would ask them repeatedly to stop but they thought it was all fun and games.”
In the journal Race, Ethnicity and Education, a study that analyzes racial microaggression in grade school classrooms says that the challenges the students faced with their names caused feelings of anxiety, shame, ‘othering’ and invisibility, combining together into a larger problem.
“As young children they internalized the racial microaggressions and often confused the racism with a burden of their culture,” the paper concludes.
Ferguson says experiences like Valenzuela’s are examples of microaggression.
“The microaggression is this whole power dynamics of feeling that you have the power, and you use those subtle behaviors of naming the person to make yourself feel comfortable and not taking into consideration how that other person is feeling.”
It’s a common tendency to brush off mispronunciation on both sides but Ferguson says, “It’s not okay to develop an excuse by saying, ‘You know what, there are so many syllables and there are so many different consonants … in your name.’ We make an effort to remember the name of our own colleagues.”
With an extensive education in linguistics, Jurkova says that native English speakers can have greater difficulty pronouncing foreign names.
“From the linguistic perspective, it depends [on] how your pronunciation apparatus has been structured. Someone who speaks a different language can pronounce letters and sounds in certain ways [that] others cannot.”
But this isn’t an excuse for mispronunciation and doesn’t mean that correct name pronunciation can’t be learned.
“If you are willing, of course it’s possible. At least you can be very close, and you can pay attention and ask the person … how to pronounce [it], and try several times and learn it.”
Agidie says that when she is trying to learn someone else’s name she takes a similar approach.
“I apologize first if I pronounce the name wrong, and I try to slowly pronounce it in case I can’t say the word or the name correctly,” she says.
When people take the time to learn the pronunciation of her name, it makes an impact. “I feel so happy,” she says. “Name is a key way to communicate with others … you feel like recognized and you feel respected.”
Often if names are difficult to pronounce people will shorten the name or simplify it to a known pronunciation in order to make their lives easier, but this practice can be both hurtful and offensive.
Jurkova says, “They do not realize that it might be a really microaggressive way to offend a person because the name for many cultures … [is] part of your own identity.”
Ferguson says asking questions for clarification, like how a name is pronounced, is a simple thing. “But to say, ‘I can’t pronounce your name, I’m just going to call you a shortened form,’ that is where the microaggression comes in.”
Zhang says that because her name is steeped in cultural meaning and history, mispronunciation goes beyond ignorance, it’s personal.
She says that many Chinese names, “are so rich in meaning and because of that mispronunciation, or others when they try to minimize their mispronunciation of my heritage name, I take it very personally.”
Although mispronunciation or the shortening of a person’s name can have a deep influence, for some people ‘a name is just a name.’
For example, many nicknames are used as endearments or a sign of friendship. Some choose to go by nicknames or shortened versions of their names to make it easier for both sides. However, the distinction between a nickname and microaggression is in how the person feels.
Jurkova says, “Asking the person is the easiest way. Ask him, ‘Do you feel comfortable? What do you prefer to be called? What do you feel comfortable to be called? If you think that changing the name will reflect negatively on your own identity, please tell me what … I should call you.”
For Zhang, one person taking the time to learn how to properly pronounce her name made a life-changing difference, prompting her to re-embrace the heritage pronunciation of her family name.
Taking the time to listen to co-workers, friends, family, classmates and strangers may seem like a simple task, but it needs to be an active choice. The responsibility is on everyone’s shoulders and maybe it could make a world of difference to the person.