When I was in year 3, a new girl arrived in our class. She was very shy and had very straight black hair. Her name was Thuy Nguyen and she was the first Vietnamese person I ever remember meeting. It was 1986.
I didn’t know very much about Thuy, except what my beloved teacher Sr Katherine (who was so cool she sang in a choir in front of the Pope that year) told me about her. Thuy couldn’t tell me much about herself at that point, she had only just arrived in Australia. On a boat, from a place where there was war and it wasn’t safe for people. This sounded almost unbelievable and I was charged with hanging out with Thuy. It was fun because we had to learn to communicate and play together without really being able to talk a lot. And I liked to talk. A lot.
What I did learn though, was how to pronounce her name correctly. Thuy is said like Twee, not Toohey. Nguyen should sound like Win not New-yen, and definitely not Neh-goo-yen.
My name was kinda different (Apparently my grandfather disapproved of my name because it didn’t appear in Cole’s Funny Picture Book) and a bit hard to spell. Correct spelling was something I generally took pretty seriously and it made sense to my 8 year old brain that spelling and saying someone’s name correctly would be not only important, but a kind and caring thing to bother knowing how to do. Therefore I took an interest and particular personal pride in making sure I knew how to correctly pronounce a variety of names and the various cultural and language backgrounds people came from.
I grew up in Berala, a suburb in the (now slightly infamous and not just for it’s Deputy Mayor) Auburn Local Government Area (LGA) and one with a high proportion and diversity of migrants, many of which were (and still are) Turkish and from the various nations across the middle east. We bought our house from a Yugoslavian family who had planted a veritable orchard of amazing plants in the relatively big backyard (which my parents almost entirely chopped down when we moved in, fig trees and all).
In the early 1990’s the old bloke we called Snowy (for the obvious reason his hair was white as snow) who lived behind us died, and his house was sold to a family with three kids. This was exciting -- our other neighbours with kids had moved away and I was feeling the absence of my bestie and her collection of cabbage patch dolls.
The Mum of the new family was called Fatima. Even though she didn’t wear a headscarf*, we knew that the family observed the traditions of Islam – I looked this up in our Encarta CD encyclopaedia (which was in itself very exciting), and read bout the 5 pillars and The Prophet (PBUH). This was pretty cool to me, I was pretty unmoved by Jesus and his miracles after years in catholic schools.
Fatima would come to our back door and talk to my Mum in the same way my Anglo friend’s Mum would. What I learned when she first introduced herself and wrote her name and phone number down for us was that she didn’t say her name as Fat-ma, but as Fah-tee-mah. Again, my brain squirreled way this information. Fah-tee-mah.
By this time I had a sense of wanting to sound bright. I noticed how some people said Sat-di for Saturday and how this sounded kinda…dumb. I didn’t want to be making those mistakes with something as important as a person’s name, the very thing that anchors in their identity.
Working in the local video store for several years at the end of high school and the start of uni in the mid-late 90’s meant I had met many of the people in the community, I could see patterns and trends in first names and surnames and would talk to people about how to say their name correctly.
Maybe it was my own personal quirk and wide-eyed curiosity of the world that I developed when I first went overseas as a 6 year old (to PNG of all places) that created such a value around respecting difference and diversity. Maybe it was the lack of connection to my own cultural heritage (really beige, English and Irish on both sides) or the fact I actually thought being Anglo was quite lacklustre – the white-bread of the cultural menu. I read Sally Morgan’s My Place in 1989 and quizzed both sets of my Grandparents about their parents and prayed we’d find some Aboriginality in the family tree so that I had something more spiritually rich to connect to…
By the time I was a high school teacher this cognizance was very useful, I’d build rapport and respect from kids more quickly if I could show a simple level of cultural awareness. My learning style is motivated by mimicking the approaches and actions of people I trust and respect. I learned to say Muslim, Islam and Allah with the same intonation as Arabic speakers through my interactions with other teachers and parents – you can notice a small flicker in their eye when I say these words with this annunciation. This recent article outlining what the pronunciation of Muslim says about people got me thinking about the significance of this again, and the deeper historical significance of saying Moo-zlam.
I found this document from Centrelink in the back of a filing cabinet when I started in my role as a school counsellor in south-western Sydney in 2008 – it was another useful tool in broadening my knowledge and becoming more inclusive and sensitive with my clients.
About this time remember a boy in year 5 who was sent to see me for ‘anger management’. When I asked him what was making him angry, he burst into tears. Between sobs he blurted out that he wished he could explain to people his name was Jehad, not jihad and get kids to stop teasing him about starting wars. Oh, the power of a vowel. In some small win we at least have a Member of NSW Parliament (and former high school Principal) with that name.
I took Arabic classes a few years ago to help me connect to the experience of learning a new language, not only orally but in written form. My schools have a high number of families from an ESL (English as a Second Language) background – which we now use the acronym CALD (Culturally and Linguistically Diverse) to describe.
I had learnt to read and write with ease and I wanted to get a sense of how I’d learn and remember what a bunch of seemingly random squiggles on a page meant – and what this experience might be like for a small human with no previous exposure to a learning environment might be like. I’d been a miserable French student for my HSC, my ability to pick up Arabic was no better (even if my mindset about learning it was). There is a certain wow-factor when your white school counsellor can sit down and write your name in Arabic, even if it looks like a 5 year old did it.
Talking to a friend and colleague recently I realised how common the challenges of simple name pronunciation remains. One of her daughters is Fatima. The struggles around that name in particular for a young lady are obvious.
She described to me how when her daughters were born she and her husband felt hopeful that giving them traditional Arabic names (one of which is Mariam, or Mary – the mother of Jesus) that they’d be inspired in their own lives by the women and strong historical role models they were named after. She imagined the world her adult daughters would live in as a mature, enlightened one in which we’d have learnt to honestly celebrate diversity and moved beyond racial discrimination (that has been shown consistently to be exercised in workplaces based on ‘ethnic’ names) and tokenistic ‘multicultural’ festivals.
Then 9/11 happened. They changed tack, giving each of their daughters a new middle name on their tenth birthdays. The gift of a new middle name (a more anglicised, virtue based one) served two purposes – it spoke more closely to the traits and strengths they had developed and the depth of their parent's knowledge of them after a decade (in a way that naming a newborn cant shed insight on). Plus a more conventional middle name could be a Plan B to using an Arabic one, which in all practicality might help them access better opportunities. She cites how many Asian families simply got the path of least resistance, giving their kids classic Anglo names (like Kevin and Kenneth and Albert) and using them in daily life over their several-part traditional ones.
I don’t ‘celebrate’ Australia Day, for me it signals the impending return to school and a cultural cringe that goes with people who say Sat-di and/or wear anything emblazoned with the Southern Cross. I don’t throw shrimp (or lamb) on a barbie. I don’t even listen to the Hottest 100. I'll leave my feelings about the decimation of the culture and sovereignty of Australia's First People out of this.
I celebrate being Australian in lots of other ways, and regularly – hopefully in the work I do and how I appreciate my colleagues, neighbours, manicurist, bus driver and petrol station attendant.
I don’t know where Thuy Nguyen is now, but with thanks to her I discovered the importance of having, albeit relatively shallow, cultural awareness of pronunciation. I think of her when I remember to say ‘fur’ not ‘foe’ when ordering Pho.
/ / / / / / /
* I’m using headscarf here, my understanding is that ‘hijab’ generally refers to the concept of modesty, not a particular style of head covering.