Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Call Me by My True Names

I owe so much to the peoples of the East. We all do. Siddhartha Gautama (India) taught people how to find peace on earth. Thich Nhat Hanh (Vietnam) explains how to practice nonviolence and mindfulness within ourselves in order to find that peace whenever we need it. Matsuo Basho(Japan) gave us the Haiku, and four centuries later Haruki Murakami (Japan)has already given us over 10 books of the most beautiful, disturbing, mythical, fiction ever written. Kar-Wai Wong (Hong Kong) created In the Mood for Love AND the best sequel ever made, 2046. Ziyi Zhyang (China) showed me my first real movie and performance. Muslims created public education. Malala Yousafzai (Pakistan) taught us that young girls can fight terrorists with such education and win even when they're shot point-blank in the head...

I've always been quite disturbed by the phenomenon of English names,which are particularly common among Eastern peoples living in the U.S. I first encountered this as a teacher when a student--so obviously not christened Charlie--told me his name was Charlie. This, he explained, was his English name as opposed to his birth name, that birth name being the one his parents worried about, argued over, and finally penned at his birth. The reason given for English names is that they are easier to pronounce, are less trouble for U.S. citizens who typically speak only one language and can choose not have exposure to unfamiliar languages.

I've had many thoughts on this over the years, ranging from outrage to acceptance...maybe it's not a big deal, maybe I would decide to do the same rather than hear people repeatedly mispronounce my lovely name. After all, this isn't my fight. Why am I even writing about this on a feminist blog? Because feminism is about unequal power structures, and unequal power structures overlap. Racism intersects with sexism, homophobia, classism...and unequal power structures are bad for everyone.

I recently saw a friend who has an English name that I had once asked her about. Her birth name is lovely--it's even spelled phonetically. Now, I make no judgement on anyone who chooses to use or not use an English name. That, I would guess, is an extremely personal decision. But as the person with the power in this situation of unequal power, I do see it as my responsibility to inquire about someone's birth name, and to learn how to say it correctly, and to use it if that is what that person wants. It's my responsibility to ask, to open that conversation, to recognize the situation for what it is (unequal, unfair, advantaged in my favor), to acknowledge that people have the right to be called by their true names.

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