Cultural Immersion through Names

29 Aug


Are you off on your study abroad trip already? Or planning one for the near future? Good luck! I hope you all have a wonderful time ūüôā

Quick Question – What’s your name?

No, I’m not trying to start a bank account with your info. “What’s Your Name” is probably the #1 most asked question of student’s abroad. And seriously, it seems like it’d be the easiest one to answer. BUT THAT’S A LIE! ¬†Names are sometimes the worst thing to try to communicate in foreign languages. ¬†

For me, the answer is “wo jiao¬†Olivia.” At one point it was “Ji ireum eun Olivia imnida” or “Watashi no namae wa Olivia desu” or “Me Llamo Olivia.” ¬†Of course, all of those are potentially wrong or pronounced wrong so I greatly prefer the simple “Olivia.”¬†

Unfortunately, even when I just say my name by itself, I still ran into a lot of trouble. Why? ¬†Because my name is not pronounceable in some languages! Sure, it come’s out normally in the US. But in Spanish, it sounds like “Oleebeea.” ¬†Korean ~ “Oh Ri bee ah”. Japanese ~ “Ah ree bee ah.” Chinese ~¬†“O” and they stop. ¬†None of them want to say the “v” and “l” and some even don’t like the “O”!

And I’m not the only person who has this trouble. Peter (“Beetle”), Kristin (Kreeseen), Martha (“Marta”), Elizabeth (“Ah lee sa bet”), Phoebe (“Pho buh” or “Phee buh”), Jack (“Check”), Jared (“Chard”). ¬†Usually when we communicate with people in our new countries, we’re at least trying to speak in their tongue. But with our names, we keep wanting¬†to preserve¬†the original word and it just doesn’t work. ¬†Lots of names do not really communicate in foreign languages or end up butchered.¬†

So instead you get used to spending 5-10 minutes with every person you meet slowly enunciating the syllables and repeating it over again. It makes you frustrated and them embarrassed.  So PICK A NAME THEY CAN EASILY SAY.

There are many ways you can approach finding a name in the foreign language:

  • Try just translating your own name.
  • Try picking one of their names that has the same meaning as your own.
  • Try picking a name that has the same sound as yours, but maybe a different meaning.
  • Try just picking a brand new name in their language that you really like.

For example, when I first moved to China a lot of people had problems with my name. Like I said above, they got the “O” but that was about it. In fact, with little kids I just became “Teacher O” and my college students preferred “sis” or “laoshi” (teacher). ¬†My name simply didn’t work.¬†

Finally, I gave up and took a poll. I asked my students to help me come up with a name that worked. ¬†After some research into my name and the meaning of my name (which is important to the Chinese), we agreed that there wasn’t a precise translation in Chinese itself. ¬†Combined with my middle and last names, my full name means “The Gods Bring Blessings of Peace and Wisdom from Heaven.” ¬†The students¬†didn’t like the names that had the same meaning (they felt it lost the beauty of the original sound). And they couldn’t quite get the original sound with the same meaning. So we finally came up with¬†Ś••šłĹÁĽīŚ®Ö (√†o¬†l√≠¬†w√©i¬†y√†).

  • √†o means “Mysterious or Profound.”¬†
  • l√≠ is “Beautiful”
  • w√©i is “Safeguard or Guardian”
  • y√† is sort of like “Pretty Girl.” ¬†

The students informed me that it was important in Chinese to not only have the correct sound, but also the correct characters since sometimes many characters make the same sound. They helped me go through and pick out characters that made the sound and meaning as close to “Olivia” as we could get.¬†

And it helps so much! ¬†I practiced saying it for a while, and now everyone immediately knows what I’m saying when I introduce myself. They are always impressed that I took the time to come up with a name for them, it shows that I want to communicate with them and build relationships. ¬†I’m meeting them half-way and they will frequently be more patient with helping me figure out their names in exchange. ¬†I’ve added it to my LinkedIn and Resume and it makes¬†them feel more confident introducing themselves. ¬†The people who added me after the Chinese name was added more than doubled than those who added me before. ¬†

Not only that, but I got a history lesson behind Chinese names, a name I treasure because it was made with love by them, and a name that they felt showed my nature. So I have two precious names in my heart – English and Chinese.

Think about it from your perspective. Say you are in America and a student comes up to you with the name “√†o¬†l√≠¬†w√©i¬†y√†.” ¬†Now, maybe in their language (like Chinese), you have to not only worry about the syllables sound, you also have to know the proper¬†tone. Say it in the wrong tone and the whole name is wrong. For example, “Ma” could be mom or horse depending on how you say it. 0_0 ¬†

So you could either try to introduce yourself to¬†Olivia (which¬†you are confident saying) or “√†o¬†l√≠¬†w√©i¬†y√†” which you frequently butcher and feel like an idiot even attempting. ¬†Odds are, you’re going to go with “Olivia.”

The same is true for all the other people in the world. If you came to China, they would feel much more comfortable if you gave them a name they can actually pronounce easily and correctly. They’ll remember your name better too! ¬†For my students, it’s always easier to remember those who gave me English names than the ones who stick to their original names. This is one of the reasons why Oral English teachers almost always start by having kids pick an English name. ¬†

It’s only fair that we do the same favor for people when we go to their countries. Pick a Chinese name. A French name. A Kenyan name. ¬†Get into their culture and into their language easier by creating a whole new, language-appropriate, name for yourself. It makes conversation and relationships easier for them to attempt and will help you make a more lasting impression. ¬†

Finally, it gives you the chance to re-invent yourself a bit too. ¬†Maybe “Olivia” is shy, quiet, not very adventurous, and not great at friends. But¬†√†o¬†l√≠¬†w√©i¬†y√† is outgoing, brave, and ready to meet new people! ¬†Sure, it isn’t the same as an official name change / re-invention, but it really does give you a chance to¬†feel like a new person. And since Studying Abroad will definitely change your character and personality – maybe having a new name to go with it is a good thing. ¬†

~ Love you guys! Let me know how your trip abroad goes! ¬†Tell me if I can help with any questions!‚̧

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: