“But what is your real name?”: Honoring transnational students’ complex agentive acts of identity negotiations in (re)naming practices (by Dr Sunny Man Chu Lau)

For those who are Key and Peele[1] fans, or even if you are not, I’m sure you might have come across this comical and satirical classroom sketch where Key poses as a substitute teacher in a predominately white classroom and mispronounces all their names as he takes the register. The sarcasm of the skit is unmistakable – anyone who is familiar with urban educational contexts can immediately recognize the parody on classrooms where monolingual and ethnocentric English-speaking teachers ‘bastardize’ or mess up multicultural students’ names. Except in this case, Key the mix-raced substitute teacher is the one who mispronounces some very common English names, such as Jacqueline as /dʒæ·kwa:·lɪn/ (ja-kwa-lin) or Blake as /ba·la·kɪ/ (ba-la-ke). The hilarity builds up as the teacher sees the students’ efforts to correct his pronunciation as acts of defiance, typical of inner-city high-schoolers and is all ready to declare “war” on them. When one student, Denise, retorts repeatedly that her name be pronounced as /dəˈniːz/ rather than /dɪ·naɪs/ (de-nice), the teacher lets out his anger by snapping his roster clipboard into two. His indignation is only assuaged when the only ethnic student (played by Peele) in the class, Timothy, responds readily and gladly to the teacher’s call of his name as /tɪ·məʊ·θi/ (ti-mo-thi).

The bazarro classroom depicted in this Key and Peele’s sketch jolts us to confront ethnocentric teaching practices, such as carelessly mispronouncing multicultural students’ names or even changing or imposing on them a certain new name to better fit with the dominant linguistic and cultural practice. Naming practice has “the power to exclude, stereotype or disadvantage students” (Peterson, Gunn, Brice, & Alley, 2015), particularly in the case of foreign names that bear unfamiliar sounds. One BILD guest blogger Narjes اسم من نرجس است (April 15, 2019) expressed how she felt different and out of place when her teachers couldn’t say her name right and that no one seemed to be interested in knowing the story behind her name. With her name erased, she felt part of herself got erased as well. Stories such as this reminds us as educators that insensitivity towards multicultural students’ names and identities can cause indelible harm and compels us to be respectful of linguistic and cultural diversity and vigilant of any identity-rejection practices in class.

In the past few years, our university have received an increasing number of transnational students. Among them, more and more arrive on campus already having a self-assigned (or other-assigned) English names. Many of the Chinese international students in particular go by  English names such as Ella or Andrew that bear little resemblance to their Chinese names and appear nowhere in their official documents. While professors have a hard time putting these students’ official names and English names together with their faces, they are also getting concerned about what seems to be students’ unilateral, pre-emptive effort to cast off their ethnic background to better fit in with the North American naming culture. With these concerns in mind, when these transnational students introduce themselves as Peter or Betty, the instinctual response is, “But what is your real name?”

If poststructuralism has taught us that identities are fluid, multiple, and changing with intricate socio- cultural, historical and political indexicalities (Norton & Morgan, 2013; Weedon, 1987), then our naming practices, whether self- or other-assigned, are possibly best examples to illustrate the complex, situated, and moment-to-moment nature of the identity negotiation processes across one’s life trajectory. It is not at all unusual for people in many cultures to have multiple names simultaneously at a given moment in their life. My Chinese name is 劉敏珠 and that’s my name throughout elementary school. In Chinese naming tradition, family names always come first (talk about a collectivist culture!) and it is also common practice to call someone’s full name, even among friends. At home, however, I was 女女 (lui-lui) –meaning “daughter-daughter” or 珠女 (chu-lui)—Chu from the second character of my first name. Both are common endearing ways of calling one’s daughter. When I started English-immersion in high school, I was asked to have an English name. I adopted the name Sunny from a famous male children TV show host at the time in Hong Kong. Unlike other common English girls’ names (such as Mary or Susan–no offense), Sunny has that pizzazz–not only is it different, it exudes radiance and hope, and more importantly, adopting Sunny as a unisex name suggests an androgynous indeterminacy, strength, and intrigue. It made me special and people do remember me for that reason. Sunny has come to be an integral part of my academic and professional life in schools and universities. Coming from a working-class family, Sunny represents my professional identity as an educated and outward-looking individual that my Chinese name 劉敏珠 does not deliver.

Naturally, when I started my doctoral program as a new immigrant to Canada, I would introduce myself as Sunny. Often, the first reaction from my well-intentioned fellow graduates was, “But what’s your Chinese name?”. I  was puzzled at first but was soon pointed out that the Canadian mosaic celebrates ethnolinguistic diversity and that I should allow myself to be free from the colonial clutches of the past—I can and should proudly embrace my “original” Chinese name. And I did –

for a while, as Man Chu.

Man Chu in English just doesn’t sit right with me. First, coming to Canada, my official name has become Man Chu LAU—putting my family name to the last was to comply with the North American practice, mostly forpragmatic reasons. In various government service centers, I had been called Mrs. Man, Mrs. Chu, Man Lau, or Lau Chu, any combinations one could possibly think of. Further, the Romanization of my name never captures the Cantonese pronunciation which has “nine sounds and six tones” (Shih, 2018, March 6).  Man Chu in English does not sound the same as 敏珠 in Cantonese because even if the pronunciation of the vowels and consonants is correct, a slight change in the tone will change the word and meaning completely. Pronunciation aside, more importantly, the name 敏珠 harkens back to my adolescent years in an evangelical church set up by Norwegian missionaries. Within that Christian community, we as brothers and sisters in Christ addressed each other using our Chinese first names, showing a degree of formality but also intimacy for respect and care. 敏珠 was me then being a young churchgoer who required spiritual guidance and support from the elders.

It took me a while to finally settle for Sunny Man Chu Lau for my name in Canada. I want to, and I must, guard the past of me that is Sunny, despite its roots in colonial English education. Sunny embodies the footprints of my colonial experiences that have made me a strong teacher educator who pushes for critical language education. If educators are called to respect ethnolinguistic diversity, what is diversity if we hold onto a monocultural view of multicultural experiences? If educators dismiss students’ wide array of ethnolinguistic experiences that do not seem to fit into their imaginary of what “real” multiculturalism is, we risk an essentialism no different from ethnocentrism.

I know an international undergraduate student called Fares Itani, a Lebanese but born in Dubai and spent all his childhood and adolescence in Sharjah (a neighbouring city to Dubai) where he had his education in three different international schools: French (K-Grade 4), Australian (Grade 4-6), and British (Grade 6-12). Most of his Arabic-speaking teachers in Dubai pronounced his first name a bit differently from how it was pronounced in Lebanon. The “a” in Fares was often read as /ɑ:/ rather than /e/. But that was how his Syrian mother would call him back in Lebanon. Being away from home since little, he has long got used to negotiating his names in different sociolinguistic contexts before coming to Quebec: introducing himself the francophone way as /fe·ʁɛs/, pronouncing the uvular fricative /r/, when speaking to francophone teachers or friends, and the English way /ˈfe·rɪs/ to Anglophones while adjusting to his name spoken by Arabic speakers with a more “international” accent.

I’m NOT arguing for students’ (or teachers’) changing their names and pronunciation to suit the dominant cultures. These are all secondary. What is more important is for teachers and educators to have a genuine interest in getting to know these students’ histories, desires, emotionality, and identity options constitutive of their different names in various contexts. Ignoring these sociohistories of theirs is to ignore the very ethnolinguistic diversities that they bring to the class.

Individuals’ agentive practices in self-naming and self-characterizing for different purposes are not exclusive to ethnic minorities. A friend of mine who comes from a mix of francophone and Anglophone backgrounds has his last name called “Parent”. His brother who works in the English media insists on his family name be read as /ˈpeə·rənt/ to assert his Anglophone identity for professional reasons. His grandfather, on the other hand, would pronounce the family name the French way–/pa·ʁɑ̃/– with a strong uvular fricative for the “r”, while for my friend, he would use a more “franglais” pronunciation–/pa·ræn/–among his colleagues and friends in the more bilingual settings of Montreal and the Eastern Townships.

Pavlenko and Blackledge (2004) argue that the multiplicity is the key to understanding identities—individuals shift and adjust ways to (re)position themselves in different sociohistoric contexts, hence “identities are best understood when approached in their entirety, rather than through consideration of a single aspect or a single position” (p. 16).  Instead of asking our transnational students, “What is your real name?”, we should engage with them (and ourselves) in a sociolinguistic inquiry: What is the naming practice in your culture? What different names do you go by? With whom and for what reasons? How do you like me to call you? Exploring and addressing these questions openly will help both teachers and students to jointly and critically reflect on the different ideologies uphold by the target language communities and the learners (teachers) themselves, both imaginary and real, particularly how different names index different identities, values and desires.


Norton, B., & Morgan, B. (2013). Poststructuralism. In C. A. Chapelle (Ed.), The encyclopedia of applied linguistics. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. doi:10.1002/9781405198431.wbeal0924

Pavlenko, A., & Blackledge, A. (Eds.). (2004). Negotiation of identities in multilingual contexts. Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.

Peterson, B., Gunn, A., Brice, A., & Alley, K. (2015). Exploring names and identity through multicultural literature in K-8 classrooms. Multicultural Perspectives, 17(1), 39-45. doi:10.1080/15210960.2015.994434

Shih, R. (2018, March 6). Nine tones of hell: How to be tuneful in Cantonese. Los Angeles Reviews of Books: China Channel. Retrieved from https://chinachannel.org/2018/03/06/nine-tones-hell/

Weedon, C. (1987). Feminist practice and poststructuralist theory. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

[1] Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are American actors and comedians best known in their  Comedy Central Sketch Series Key & Peele (2012-15)

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