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After the applause….


I finished a class this week and there was applause. The general reticence of Chinese learners to be demonstrative in the classroom had me thinking their joy was merely over the fact that the period had finally end. Caught off guard, with tears in my eyes, I lowered my head and tried to understand what had brought on such a response.

The class had been a simple one: an exercise that had them speaking about themselves, the origins of their families and the meanings inherent in the elegant pictographs that are the Chinese characters that represent their names. They chalked each one on the board and told the room stories of history, hope and love that had gone into the choices made for them and by whom the names had been given and why.

Let me digress back a week and tell you of an encounter I had with one of the Chinese nationals teaching at our school: She wandered into a conversation I was having with two other Chinese professors and introduced herself with an English name I knew could not be hers by heritage. I then asked, as I always do, her “real” name in Chinese. She replied that it was much too difficult for a foreigner. I asked again and she answered with a simple name, nearly as common in China as is Smith or Jones in America. I was not sure if I should be angry, saddened or pedagogical or silent at that moment. I simply drew the character for her name in the air and then asked if I was correct. She confirmed my choice and left the conversation after quickly instructing, thereby saving face, that Chinese names were richer in meaning and more carefully chosen than were western ones. My three daughters Alizon (named for the beautiful lover in the verse play The Lady’s not for Burning), Adrienne (named for famed feminist poet Adrienne Rich) and Chieko (My “Thousand Blessings Child” nearly lost to a prenatal condition) might disagree, but I nodded acceptance and went back to small talk with my colleagues.

It was later that day that I conceived the teaching lesson I mention above. And I cconceded that it was often true that Chinese families incorporated, on the whole, more thought and care when choosing a name: superstition, family placement, tradition about who in the family normally names a new child, hopes associated with the birth of the child (sometimes even questionable ones like giving the girl a boy’s name because they had hoped for a male child), Feng Shui master recommendations and dozens of other factors that never enter into our decisions in America. I thought that she had made actually made a great case for students (and herself) not using English names. I wanted students to know that some of us are really hungry to know more about Chinese culture and willing to endure being uncomfortable with the difficulties of language acquisition. And I wanted to re-instill a sense of identity and connection with their own culture that I dreaded they could lose if they abandoned their uniqueness because of a fear of not fitting in or being wholly understood for foreigners.

Many foreign teachers, for convenience, give or accept English names from the foreign charges in their classes. They allow students to abandon the most beautiful written language on earth and deny their heritage by replacing their names with handles like “Flash,” Zinger,” Caca,” and “Bush” and “Bin Laden” (who incidentally are really friends)….Some students have perfectly reasonable names and, for whatever reason, ask to be called by the same. In those cases I obey their requests.

Some teachers make the case that they give English names as part of practice in cultural education. I remember doing the same thing in German class in Germany. The difference was/is the English names here usually generally stick with the students for decades, even life. Coversely, I can remember many a foreign teacher in Japan expressing feelings of anger about having their name transliterated by a Japanese into an inadequate and odd sounding phonetic alphabet. Many teachers thought the practice was racist and that the Japanese should learn to correctly pronounce their names.. But, I have rarely heard an ESL teacher take the opposing stance when it comes to student titles.

How can we ever translate the stories of five thousand years written on their faces, hear their fragile voices chime with the long-traveled love of ancestors, or walk down the aisles of the dialectic between us without even knowing their real names?

I had dinner the following day with a British teacher who told me that a wise lecturer of his had once added this question to a final exam: “What is the name of the person who cleans this room for you every day?” Some thought it a joke while others saw it as a call to find learning in the commonplace–that upon examination becomes extraordinary. I don’t know how that teacher graded this lesson, but I know the best answer I could have received would have been: “I don’t know, but I will find out.”

Some of greatest lessons in life and my deepest understanding of any culture has come from taxi drivers, and hospital orderlies–real stories for another post. These kinds of awakenings have been more commonplace than revelations gained through dialogue with supervisors or professional pedants. And too they have come from students, like mine this week, with the onomatopoeia of temple bells, the warmth of summer sun or the synestheia-like fragrance of jade in their names. Why wouldn’t I want to hear the wishes wished for them instead of some silly nickname foisted on them or adopted by themselves because of some misunderstanding of a western movie or TV show?

One of my friends in American, his last name is Lason, has kept meticulous records of his family tree. He comes from Russian Jewish roots. His original family name was Lashinsky. The customs officials at Ellis Island altered it for eternity because it sounded “too Jewish.” While some families changed their names voluntarily, many ethnic minority group members at Ellis had their names altered to accommodate the ethnocentrism of a few in power. If someone opts to choose an alternate pronunciation for whatever reason I can understand it, but I don’t ever want to be the cause.

My class showed its gratitude for being able to share a verbal communion, a common meal of understanding and appreciation with a curious stranger to their past. And after the applause I reflected on my job which I believe is to nurture what is already there: a shy and folded leaf of promise obediently growing toward the light available to them. I feel it is my duty as a visitor in this country to learn as much as I can about the people and places I inhabit. And it is always my mandate as a teacher to instill pride and a sense of identity in students; especially those who feel inferior because they have been affected by the stereotypes of a western media that often ridicules Asian names and customs.

So, after the applause I moved on to the next class hoping to a grateful janitor, taxi driver, and attentive educational orderly and hoping to keep learning from the teachers on the other side of the aisle. There is no requirement to remember my name.

Asia,cartoons,China Editorials,Heartsongs,Intercultural Issues,Macau University of Science and Technology,Personal Notes,Teaching in China,中国,中文

18 responses so far

18 Responses to “After the applause….”

  1. Daveon May 13th 2007 at 10:08 pm

    No offense, but if calling your students by an English name for one hour a day is a serious threat to their cultural identity, I think they may be beyond your help. Just sayin’…

  2. adminon May 14th 2007 at 12:43 am

    It just strikes me as more reasonable than Caca…I teach business students classes like negotiations. Why should they be in a one-down posture from the beginning just to accommodate a westerner?

    In the States I cannot for a second imagine calling a Polish ESL student in a college by an easy to pronounce name rather than his family one….Many of them had grandparents with mixed feelings over being assigned names at Ellis Island for the convenience of the custom’s examiners…

    It was a lesson in respect for both of us and it obviously struck a chord….

    I know plenty of western teachers who get their names mispronounced because of difficulty, but none who adopted a Chinese name to make ti easier on students…Most take on Chinese names as a novelty/souvenir not to fit in…

    The post is not an indictment of English teachers who use English names or a mandate to change their ways, just a call to look at reasons to try another approach….

  3. Joseph Breedenon May 14th 2007 at 4:09 am

    I enjoy reading your blog. Had not looked at for awhile until just now – was shocked to find you had changed the format and the type is so small now on a brown background – very hard to read. Hope you change back to a more readder friendly format.

  4. The Humanaughton May 14th 2007 at 4:10 am

    I really like the new design Lonnie, though I might agree that the text needs some re-tooling. A bit larger/darker and add some line-height to the paragraph tags to get some space between the paragraphs.

  5. Kevin S.on May 14th 2007 at 5:20 am

    I admire that you were able to take a frustrating situation and make something positive out of it. When I hear such comments from people I usually just play the part – “As we all know, the foreigners can’t learn such a difficult language as Chinese.” Right. Tell that to this post on my Chinese blog.

    For all I care, they can continue thinking that for the rest of their lives, and continue revealing their ignorance of the world for all to see. It’s not my face at stake.

  6. daveon May 14th 2007 at 12:20 pm

    Brilliant classroom exercise Lonnie. Just brilliant.

  7. Daveon May 14th 2007 at 10:28 pm

    I was about to say that when I was in China, all my teachers made us use Chinese names and I thought nothing of it, but then I realized–that was because I was in China. If my Chinese teacher in the US had made us do that, I guess I would be a little put off.

  8. Squirrelon May 15th 2007 at 2:06 am

    Sounds like your students really love you! I like the new layout of your blog.

  9. Megon May 15th 2007 at 4:48 am

    I ask my students to use English names to help enforce the English-only rules of my classroom. I don’t think it’s imperialist or insensitive, we had Spanish names in my high-school Spanish class.

    I remember one class when I tried to talk my girls away from stripper names (Cherry, Lovely, etc.)… they were surprised to learn that foreign names also have nuance.

  10. Daveon May 15th 2007 at 5:12 am

    To answer your question Lonnie, I don’t know anything about “The Blood of Yingzhou District” other than what’s found on those links in my entry. Regretfully, I wasn’t able to see the film.

    Also, I was putzing around on Facebook today and stumbled across a group called “One China…bitch”. You can imagine my surprise when I saw a certain familiar face commenting on the discussion board =)

  11. adminon May 15th 2007 at 11:22 am

    I was cruising too…was showing my Internet marketing class the power of social networking…Both the class and I had a great laugh at that and several China sites…You didn’t join? I see lots of contrary views on there….

    Have you joined over the wal yet (not misspelled) …???

  12. Joshon May 15th 2007 at 12:02 pm

    You had me until Lashinsky was changed by Ellis Island officials as too Jewish. C’mon.

  13. adminon May 15th 2007 at 1:03 pm

    True story: He is a dentist in Chicago…..I sent you the link. he has been a friend for more than a decade.

  14. adminon May 15th 2007 at 1:22 pm

    As an addendum: It is commonly regarded as an urban myth that names were NOT changed at Ellis. Indeed, MOST names were only altered at the request of the immigrant or to assist in the speed up of processing. However, some folks WERE dealt new monikers by unkind immigration officers:

    Many names were changed simply because immigration was processing so many folks at one time. There are many projects out there to correct the problem regardless of the intent (shortening of a long name, difficulty understanding accents….):

  15. te mu er(phillip)on May 16th 2007 at 1:54 pm

    yah! i will keep learning from the teachers on the other side of the aisle. but i think i will miss u,coz u r a good teacher in the class and life,and i admire u very much!i also thnx for sharing ur story,u know,lots of chinese always hide theirs mind or some sad memories. me too.but when u tell me some story and share ur past,including seeing that movie(freedom writer),i found things in my daily life are meaningful to me.
    i don’t know why some teachers always likes to deny others’ ability?! on Tuesday,in my chinese civilzations class,that teacher said we could only enter this school coz of paying them lots of money!!!!(but i i got my marks high enough to enter this school!)and then he said our quality is very bad.his tone and things what he said mean to treat us as fools!that made me unhappy the whole day.i think he doesn’t respect us!!!!!
    have a good day,lonnie!

  16. adminon May 16th 2007 at 5:58 pm

    Thanks for the kind words…
    I will miss you guys…Sorry about your insensitive teacher…He needs a new job, aye?

  17. 刘瑞宁(Rainy)on May 19th 2007 at 7:09 am

    Hi!Professor,I am a student of your business class on Wednesday.After I read this article,I just want to say thank you to you!Because it makes me feel so proud of my Chinese name.So from now on,when I introduce myself to foreingers,I will tell them my Chinese name first!Thank you again and it is so lucky for me to be a student of you.

  18. 李玫(LI,MEI)on May 20th 2007 at 3:34 am

    it is true that name is really very important for chinese, at least for me. once i am given this name, i will use it all my life. and also the english name, many of my friends chang their english names with their mood, but i will never change it.

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