I have a weird name. So does my Pakeha wife and my mixed race kids. Lots of people have odd names that are hard to pronounce and I am fortunate to be surrounded by people who try their best to say my name correctly. But, this wasn’t the name I was born with. I was born ‘Ekant Veer Singh’. Racial tensions where I grew up in the UK meant that being a ‘Singh’ didn’t make school the easiest place to be, so my parents dropped my surname and I legally changed my name just before moving to New Zealand when I was 15.
Legally, I’ve only ever been Ekant Veer in New Zealand. However, I’m also Jack…Jack is my English name – it’s the name I use to make life easier for people. Having an English name is something many immigrants feel they need to have in order to ‘fit in’ in Kiwi culture. My name is foreign enough that I’ve heard all variations of it and I don’t really mind, as long as people are trying their best.
Many of my East Asian students have an English name. But, for some, it’s not something they have chosen – it’s a name that’s been assigned to them. For many it is accepted that they cannot use their birth name in New Zealand, so they just use an English one that their English teachers gave them. The same happens in reverse for many Westerners traveling to Asia – they’re given a local name to help them fit in.
None of this is all that innocuous or what I would see as being inherently ‘racist’, but there are occasions where we are forced not to use our names because life is just harder if we use our birth names. When I started looking for my first ‘big boy’ job after uni I would call prospective employers and try to chat directly to the person in charge of hiring. Not because I wanted to build a rapport or learn some inside knowledge (although, that did help) but so they knew I could speak English. I’d finish the call with “Oh, my name’s Ekant – you’ll remember it because I’m likely to be the only Ekant in your pile – it’s a pretty rare name, even in India.” This was usually enough to break down the barrier some people have towards hiring someone with a foreign name.
Too many times I have heard stories from employers putting aside potential hires because their name is ‘foreign’ and this effect is backed up with research. Philip Oreopoulos’s 2011 paper in the American Economic Journal revealed that foreign names received significantly fewer call backs despite having the same work experience and education than their English named counterparts. Although this study was carried out in Canada, anecdotal evidence shows a similar effect in New Zealand.
For some, having an English name is their choice. They love the idea that they have a new identity in this country, but to make a person feel they cannot use their birth name because it’s too hard for others to pronounce or that judgements are made about their language skills is simply not good enough. When you move to New Zealand you’re told to fit in you need to adopt a Kiwi way of life – you have left behind your family, your home, your culture, your friends, your food, your religion, and now you want them to leave behind their names? That one thing left that links them to their identity? We can and should be better than this.
My skills when it comes to many Asian languages are awful. Truly appalling. But I try my hardest to pronounce my students’ birth names correctly. I ask them if it’s OK if they teach me how to say their name and then I try and try again to get it right. I probably don’t - but most tell me that they appreciate me trying. That’s the very minimum we should all do – we should try to see if we can be better. It’s difficult to build a caring, accepting society when we don’t even try to pronounce someone’s name correctly but force them to accept a name that’s easier for us. I’m proud of my name – sure, life is a little harder at times, but I wouldn’t change it.
Secondly, and more serious an issue, in my mind, when we see a foreign name we shouldn’t make assumptions about them, their culture, their language, their abilities etc. It’s usually not in an aggressive, anti-immigrant manner, but rather in a look of surprise – the ‘wow, you speak English really well for an Indian’ shock that comes along with having a funny name. It’ll take time and it’ll take more integration and experience with other cultures, but that’s surely part of manaakitanga – it’s part of what makes us Kiwis.
Let’s try and make sure every person in New Zealand, whether they are a quick visitor or someone who has made this place their home, feels able to use the name of their choice. And if you have a weird name, don’t be afraid to share it with people – make it easy to remember - write it down for people with a phonetic pronunciation. Don’t roll your eyes in frustration when someone wants to hear your name a few times to get it right - help people with the pronunciation of your name. So, for the record, it’s like “I can’t” but with an “Eh” instead of an “I” – Eh-carnt. Or Jack.