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Aspects of identity: the impact of non-Western names

Nishtha Sharma

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In fourth grade, JJ Ryu (10) made the personal choice to go by “JJ” rather than her legal name, Jih Su, after she noticed that her peers and teachers failed to make an effort to pronounce her legal name.
“My teachers would always call me totally skewed names that sounded like Jih Su, but weren’t. It really bothered me because I feel like people weren’t even trying to learn my name,” Ryu said.
Names are a large part of students’ identities in the school, and while some students who have nontraditional names choose to go by their given names, others choose to be called a Western name due to mispronunciation name by classmates and teachers.
Although her parents and family still use her Korean name, Ryu feels that she isn’t as immersed in her culture and background as she could be while she continues to identify differently. “The more I think about it, there probably is a part of my interaction with my culture that I’ve lost because I don’t use my Korean name, but I find it much easier to go by [JJ] since I no longer have to deal with people getting my name wrong, so I think it’s worth it.”
Simon Yang (10) goes by Simon, a name chosen by his parents, to avoid mispronunciations of his Korean name, Hyunseo.
“I decided to go by ‘Simon’ because I knew it was going to be easier for people to pronounce here when I moved from Korea,” he said. However, when Yang visits Korea, he primarily goes by Hyunseo within his family and older relatives, he said.
“Although there is a divide, having two different names doesn’t really feel that weird to me,” Yang said. “I don’t feel like I’ve lost any touch with my culture going by Simon since the only people who call me [Simon] are my friends, peers, and teachers. Also, I’ve lived in Korea for most of my life, and I speak Korean at home, so my culture is still a big part of my life.”
However, he faces issues when using FirstClass or Google Drive, he said. When it comes to group projects, or during clubs fair Yang has to specify his real name along with “Simon,” he said. “It becomes a trivial, but problematic issue.”
On the other hand, students like Taussia Boadi (10), Chidimma Rachel Okpara (11), Euwan Kim (10), and Sajan Mehrotra (11), choose to go by their birth names.
Mehrotra finds himself dealing with mispronunciation on many occasions, especially from teachers, Mehrotra said.
Similarily, Boadi “appreciates having a unique name, but…it has come to a point where I’m hardly bothered by [mispronunciation] anymore,” she said. Although her name is recognizable to her and her family, Boadi understands that “in the school environment, people are unfamiliar with both the spelling and pronunciation, so I’ve learned to accept it,” she said.
“I don’t expect people to be immediately familiar with my name, but I think that the proper way to address the issue of mispronunciation is to just ask me how to say it,” Boadi said.
Kim is used to teachers’ mispronouncing her name, “usually for the whole school year. If they don’t get it in the first few weeks, after I try correcting them, and repeating my name, I give up. It doesn’t really annoy me anymore though,” she said.
Okpara often experiences a different reaction to her name from teachers compared to her peers, she said. “Teachers try pronouncing it, and usually end up getting it wrong because they aren’t used to it, while my peers typically compliment it and ask how to pronounce it.”
However, teachers feel apologetic and ask for the proper pronunciation, Okpara said. “It doesn’t take too long for them to get my name right after the year starts, but it’s especially helpful when they just ask me for clarification.”
On the first day of school, English teacher Andrew Fippinger asks all of his students how to pronounce their names, Fippinger said. “If it’s a name I haven’t heard before or don’t know how to pronounce, I write it down phonetically.”
“I try to encourage students to tell me if I’ve been mispronouncing their name because it’s not intentional,” Fippinger said. During his first year teaching at the school, he had been pronouncing a student’s name incorrectly for about a month before the student’s friend told him, Fippinger said. “It was a revelation to me that a student might not feel comfortable telling me themselves.”
If there is a student whose name he doesn’t feel confident pronouncing or if he missed the pronunciation on the first day of school, Fippinger asks them to clarify the pronunciation as soon as possible, he said.
Despite coping with mispronunciation, Boadi never considered using a more Western name because she was unable to find an alternative that “worked for her.” “Sometimes I’ll let people call me ‘T,’ if that works, but for the most part, I like to go by Taussia,” she said.
“I’m considering going by a more Western name in the future, because I think it will make career opportunities more accessible,” Kim said.
While Okpara prefers to go by her first name, she occasionally allows people to use her middle name, Rachel, although she never considered using any other names aside from those two.
“There definitely is a large part of my cultural identity that’s linked with my name,” Okpara said. “I’m Nigerian, and my name means ‘God is good,’ so it definitely feels nice to show my background through my name. Although it’s not something I think about every day, my name holds a large part of who I am.”
Kim feels that her name is one of the few ways she connects with her culture. “Though I consider myself more American, I’m proud of my relationship with my Korean culture, no matter how inconvenient my name may be.”

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Aspects of identity: the impact of non-Western names