May is Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, a recognition of the contributions that Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have made to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. Ironically, the fear for their safety and life of Asian Americans, especially among seniors, has not abated despite the recent nationwide protests and rallies against anti-Asian violence, which has brought the national awareness to a new height.
To counter violence and discrimination against Asian Americans, legislators and leaders like Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced the creation of a workgroup that will explore ways to combat anti-Asian violence. He has joined a long list of political and justice leaders, including the President and the Asian American lawmakers, in working out a plan to deter and curb this surge in crimes and incidents targeting the Asian American communities. A balanced solution, albeit still some way off, is gradually emerging including legal measures and broad-based public education program components.
Laws are an essential component of a long-term solution. However, in order to change people’s attitudes, education and changing our daily habits are just as important.
Out of all the educational options, cultural humility, I think, might have the most potential as an approach. If people don’t treat each other with respect and always with the assumption that “I am better than you are,” this kind of violence/hate might perpetuate forever.
That’s why, to stop anti-AAPI violence we have to start somewhere small, like learning to pronounce Asian names properly. We have to let language lead us where policy and policing can’t.
A person’s name is a critical part of that person’s individuality and cultural identity and power. Naming practice is much more than just a research interest in cultural linguistics. Naming traditions differ across cultures around the world, and they might bring forth some misunderstandings and misconceptions if too much assumption is made. Chinese and Koreans from the Far East, for example, do not follow the first name and last name conventions and invariably put their family names first and given names last, contrary to the traditional American naming schemes.
Being called differently other than your proper name is so insignificant that most foreign-born faculty deal with it with just a smile unless there is a malign intent with disrespect and contempt detected. I am so accustomed to being called all kinds of names. I answer to Mr. Han, Mr. Fu, Mr. Hanfu, and, of course, Mr. Mi, especially as I used to write my name Han Fu Mi or Han-Fu Mi when I first came to this country. Even when my family name is identified correctly, many people would pronounce it like an open syllable as [mai]. Another misidentification is that I would be more presumably mistaken as a Ms. instead of a Mr., which supposedly has something to do with my name as well.
A few Chinese family names look like English personal pronoun homographs, such as “He,” “She,” and “You,” which pronounce differently and certainly mean differently in Chinese. A former colleague of mine, Dr. Li, used to be called “Dr. [lai]” by many of his students when he was initially hired. I jokingly told him that he should be happy because at least nobody had called him as “Dr. Liar.”
I still remember the frustration when I was refused to be registered with a website for the first time. The error message stated that my last name was invalid and it needed at least three letters. I could not change my last name legally on the spot even if I wanted to. I later on developed a strategy to cope with it. Whenever a site didn’t accept my two-letter last name, I added a zero at the end.
It worked, and I never had any issues after that. But the lesson was clear: the “accepted” linguistics of society don’t include my name. The exclusion I experience is thorough.
People often mispronounce immigrants and international students’ names and their identities misunderstood. Researchers have found mispronunciation of names equates to racial microaggressions – subtle daily insults that, as a form of racism, support a racial and cultural hierarchy of minority inferiority.
It’s difficult to generate correct pronunciation of proper names but it might be a small but essential part of eradicating hate; there’s actually a “name-pronunciation effect”: easy-to-pronounce names (and their bearers) are judged more positively than difficult-to-pronounce names. Chinese names may be hard to pronounce, not only for the general pronunciation, but also for the specific tone ascribed to each character. Even amongst the Chinese, a wide variety of difficulty levels exists.
Pronouncing these foreign names accurately communicates a genuine sense of caring, and shows respect for other cultures and an attempt to get to know people individually. People feel vindicated if their names are treated with respect.
Hanfu Mi is a Professor of Literacy Education and Linguistics and a former Dean at the University of Illinois at Springfield, and a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project.