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GUEST OPINION: Being forced to use anglicized names can leave new Canadians feeling undervalued

Thinh Nguyen appreciates that his instructors at Holland College took the time to learn and pronounce his name. File photo
Thinh Nguyen appreciates that his instructors at Holland College took the time to learn and pronounce his name. File photo

Thinh Nguyen
Guest opinion


At Holland College, instructors say my name right. And it means a lot.

On my first day at Holland College, the instructors asked everyone to say a little bit about themselves. I introduced myself using my Vietnamese name, Thinh, which is pronounced as the adjective “thin.” Some might consider this an “exotic” name, and so are the names of some fellow classmates who are also international students like me.

Two months before, I had come across a New York Times article about a Vietnamese student being asked by her professor to anglicize her Vietnamese name. The name is Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, which the professor thinks is offensive in English. At the time I was about to attend Holland College, and I was a bit unnerved wondering if something like that would happen to me.

I used to go by the name “Andy” so that native English speakers would find my name easy to pronounce. A lot of my Vietnamese friends when moving to Canada to study often adopt an English name for that same reason. This is prevalent in minority groups.

A BBC article says almost 50 per cent of black and Asian people “whitened” their names in resumes, which helped them get a call back. But sadly, using an anglicized name has been shown to be associated with lower levels of self-esteem. I couldn’t relate to that more.

All my life, I’ve been taught that countries like my home, Vietnam, are considered developing ones, while countries like the U.S. and Canada are developed nations. There’s a subtle yet strong sense of inferiority in every contact I make with people from those developed countries. I opted for a random anglicized name to suit their lexicon. I felt my name was not as important as theirs.

It’s not just me.

What would you do if you saw some people begging on the street so that they could have money for travelling? I bet you wouldn’t want to fund some strangers’ holiday. And yet in Vietnam, many white backpackers do that, and they can get a lot of cash from local people.

The Vietnamese love westerners; that’s what I’ve observed over the years. And it’s not just my country. In East Asian countries like China, Japan, Korea or Thailand, western backpackers who lack training and without a degree in teaching can easily land jobs in teaching English that pay handsomely, whereas qualified local teachers make a fraction of that. I was one of those teachers.

I felt incredibly undervalued, and I felt the sense of inferiority growing stronger and stronger.

But my experience so far with Holland College has been so positive. My instructors always get the names of international students like me right, which I immensely appreciate.

Names carry our heritage. They carry the hopes and dreams our parents wished for us when we were born. They are an integral part of our identity, and so we can’t forgo that part in exchange for some random anglicized name to suit the taste and lexicon of the majority. I’m glad my instructors pay attention to such little details about us, making us feel valued and respected. It means a lot.

Thinh Nguyen is a first-year student in the journalism program at Holland College in Charlottetown.

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