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The day my identity was reshaped

I believe I was around 5 years old, maybe 4. It was my first day of school and the teacher was going through the roll, calling out names and asking us to raise our hand if we heard our name. At this tender age I had no idea to expect that the teacher could possibly mispronounce my name, or have any difficulty with it. So when she finally did come to my name, “Saltanat Hasan”, she balked.

In front of her class of teeny tiny children, wide-eyed and innocent, she could not pronounce my name. So she instantaneously said to me (and the class),

“I am going to call you ‘Sally’ from now on.”

And she (presumably) crossed out my name on the roll and replaced it with ‘Sally’.

She crossed out the name that my parents had given me, endearingly chosen and endowed upon me, she stripped away my cultural and racial heritage, and re-Christianised (yes, CHRISTIANISED)me as…Sally.

This was the name written on my primary school reports. My PARENTS even went along with it. It made life easier. As migrants who arrived on Australian shores 5 years prior, they were trying their best to assimilate into White Australia. Why not allow your daughter’s teacher to call her by a name that was easier?

Looking back, this was a defining moment in my life, because believe it or not, it wasn’t until I started university and had just begun to think for myself that I consciously decided to leave ‘Sally’ behind and embrace ‘Saltanat’.

So yes, a teacher mispronouncing a student’s name CAN have lasting impacts. Think about what impact a teacher RENAMING a child can have.

For God’s sake, the name is pronounced phonetically. If you are a teacher you should be able to READ!

“Ok children, if we come across a word that is difficult, we simply break it down into syllables…”

SAL-TA-NAT

Easy!

Apparently not for her. All her teaching training and her English proficiency did not equip her with the challenge of reading a name that she had never seen before. Did her Anglo background blind her and make her dumb to her superior knowledge and education she’d received when she saw the unusual name staring up at her from the roll?

Over the years I have seen many of my friends from varying ethnic backgrounds encounter the same problem. At school, at the bank, at the GP, over the phone.

They might even have simple names, but names that were not English, and so the person who had to call out the name simply buckled, and was left confused.

Take my sister’s name- Subhi. Pronounced SUE-BEE.

Her name as been mistaken for:

Susie. Suvi. Sue.

Take my father-in-law’s name, which is Naim. NA-YEEM. It’s a Turkish name. He was at some official government office and the lady at the register asked him what his name was. He replied, “Naim”, which sounds very much like the word, ‘name’. To which she responded, “yes that’s what I asked, what is your name?”, To which he responded “NAIM!” And so they went back and forth for a while until she finally understood what his name was, upon which she promptly responded, “Ok, let’s change your name to something easier, something English.” My father-in-law was horrified and replied by saying, “I didn’t ask you to change YOUR name so it’s easier for ME to say.”

It was an absolutely hilarious anecdote, but also so telling of how anyone of ethnic background was expected to CHANGE THEIR NAMES to assimilate. To make it easier for the rest of Australia to call on them.

WHY?!!

So many people, relatives and friends that I know have Anglicised their names. They have their own official names with an ‘English option’. So ‘Mohammad’ becomes ‘Moey’. Or ‘Dawud’ becomes ‘David’. Or ‘Jian’ became ‘Joanne’.

From the day that that first grade teacher baptised me ‘Sally’ in front of all of my peers, I would introduce myself as ‘Sally’ to everyone I met, to every new school I enrolled in henceforth. EVEN when I went to a private high school whose origins were Turkish and Muslim, with the majority of students from this background, I STILL stuck with this name. Because get this, even THEY, the students and teachers, couldn’t be bothered to learn my wildly unusual name that they had never heard of.

My shyness regarding my name reflected a deeply entrenched shame I had about my racial origins, because when I told people my name, the next inevitable question was “Oh that’s an interesting name, where is it from?”. I am UYGHUR. Try saying that people. Oh and who even are the Uyghurs? WHERE ARE YOU FROM ANYWAY? Why couldn’t I just have been born Turkish (which is a closely related ethnicity) so I didn’t have to explain where I was from, or even have to utter the strange word “UYGHUR”???!!!

Many times throughout my childhood and adolescence I would simply pretend that I was Turkish. Then I decided to go with my father’s heritage, Uzbek, because at least they were an independent country that you could point out on a map.

But my Uyghur side was totally neglected. The “Uyghurs” by the way are a Turkic ethnic minority group who reside in China. Although ethnically, religiously, linguistically and culturally different to the Chinese, politically we remain under Chinese rule and authority, despite legally having an ‘Autonomous region’.

Point is, nobody knows about Uyghurs because the Chinese don’t even officially recognise them. They are not on the map. The autonomous region is named ‘Xinjiang Autonomous region’; ‘Xinjiang’ is a Chinese word meaning ‘New Frontier’. Go figure.

So when my first grade teacher renamed me ‘Sally’, it set me on a path for the rest of my schooling years, a path that would make me ultimately deny my very cultural heritage, instil a sense of shame about my identity, which only contributed to my lack of confidence well into high school. And a kid that enters high school with a lack of confidence in their values, their identity and heritage is a kid that will inevitably do some messed up sh*! just to “fit in” and feel accepted.

And that was exactly my trajectory.

So if you are a teacher, please make the utmost effort to pronounce your student’s names properly. Don’t rename them without even asking the child. Or the parents. If you haven’t heard of the child’s cultural background, do some research. Make the effort to respect and uphold the child’s heritage. Because if you, simply out of ignorance, or arrogance, or laziness, or convenience “can’t be bothered” to  give that child due respect and dignity by uttering their NAME properly, know that you are significantly impacting that child’s sense of self, possibly for a very, VERY long time.

Were you that kid who dreaded his/her name being called out in a new class? What experiences have you had with people mispronouncing your name? How did you deal with it? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comment section below!

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6 Comments

  1. Shaza Rifi says

    Sal, i had no idea you were Uyghur! I feel so silly :(.
    Unfortunately it is still so common for people to alter their names for the convenience of others.
    As you have noted, it’s so important to honour people for who they are. It is something that’s happened in my own workplace and we are all trying hard to undo it – but its tough after months of using an ”anglo” version of the name. The struggle continues 🙂

    Like

  2. EBS (a.k.a Ebru ) says

    Haha this resonated. I was eeeeebrew or hebrew (the irony) when i worked for Telstra it was Debrah (how one gets Debra from Ebru?) now i tend to say Ebs cos i get sick of repeating myself. Funny when i was in highschool we had an influx of Timorese students with names like Gracietta, Cindy, etc but I made an effort to find out their ethnic Chinese names like Asiue and would only call them that. Great article

    Like

  3. Great post. I think it’s something quite common and has been for a whole. My mother’s kindergaten teacher also ‘changed’ her name to make it easier to pronounce. Not sure it was a bad thing though. Bet it saved her a lot of “how do you pronounce that” conversations in life. Interestingly enough when she chose her children’s names she gave us Anglo/Christian esque names. I find its made life a tad easier?

    Like

  4. Sevgi says

    I worry a really long comment here and then I somehow lost it but basically, I know how you feel. Sevgi becomes Sophie, sev becomes Steph. Even when I sorted my name to sev I can’t win!

    Like

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