Foreign Language Schools and Community

In honor of Asian and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, this post will be concerning a central issue in the APIDA (Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American) communities.

In the United States, particularly on the coasts, there are a series of institutions that teach language skills. You may have heard of some of them, like the ABC Language Exchange, the Middlebury Language School, or the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, all of which offer classes in particular foreign langauges. These are more mainstream and broadly-reaching institutions, but there is another class of language institute, with a very different place within the community.

These are the foreign language schools, particularly for Chinese, Korean, and Japanese. Where I live in the Bay Area, you could find these just about anywhere. I had a lot of Chinese and Korean friends growing up, and many of them talked about their experiences going to “Chinese school” or “Korean school”. There are also Japanese day schools where the Japanese community can take classes, such as Sakura Gakuen, a particularly famous school in the Bay Area. The events of Japanese American internment, unfortunately, did cause these schools to decline. These schools are more about the community than the language itself, because they exist for a very specific purpose.

Immigrant communities that speak foreign languages, in varying degrees, want to preserve their languages in their children that are born abroad, in order to foster some kind of appreciation for or connection to their heritage. These schools allow for the parents of these communities to send their children to after-school or weekend classes to have their children learn their mother tongue. This kind of place is helpful to parents who have busy jobs and can’t be with their children as much as they’d like, or parents who want their children to have particular degree of competency in their mother tongue. These schools give these families an opportunity to immerse their children in their heritage and community.

Now, my Chinese and Korean friends, by and large, hated going to Chinese and Korean school. This is to be expected, since most children don’t like being given extra work, especially when they want to play or do other things in their free time. But I have noticed that some of them, especially now that a lot of us are in university, regret not paying attention in their Chinese or Korean classes, or regret making their parents taking them out of classes completely. But the thing is that these Chinese and Korean Americans are able to come together and foster a sense of community through their mutual experiences as well as language.

As an Indian American, this is something that I wish I had while growing up. I grew up not being able to speak my mother tongue well, if at all, and it was only after I asked my parents to finally teach me so that I could talk to my family in India that I finally learned. Many Indian Americans don’t really have the opportunity to go to any kind of after school or weekend class for their language, partly due to the sheer diversity of languages spoken by Indians. There isn’t an established tradition of sending children to such classes anyway, because many Indian immigrants can speak English at least conversationally, if not fluently. Many Indian immigrants feel that teaching their children anything other than English is not useful and therefore neglect teaching their children at all. Some also are under the impression that it will confuse their children to teach their children two languages. The latter, at least, has proven by many linguists to be absolutely false. Many children do grow up bilingual, quite successfully (evidenced by me, my brother, and many other children in the APIDA community as well as other communities).

Part of it is that these schools in the Chinese, Korean, and Japanese communities have sprung from a need to create community since parents may not speak English and children can learn about their heritages through these communal centers. Another thing is that these communities have been in the United States for much longer than the Indian community (and South Asian communities in general), and are more established, which helps them in establishing these community centers. Language is often the binding glue of community, and brings people together in ways that other things do not, since it is the medium of communication. I think that as time passes, and that South Asian communities do become more established, there will be time where at least Hindi-Urdu language schools will become more commonplace.

Why I Have a Chinese Name But I Don’t Want to be Called “Sean”

Photo credits to freshofftheboatdaily, since this isn’t mine.

One of my friends on Facebook shared the photo in this post recently, and it immediately struck a chord with me. Names are of enormous importance to many people of different cultures around the world, and sometimes the nuances of naming can vary between communities by the language they speak.

In the Indian subculture that I come from, newborns are given their names by the rite of nāmkarna, a Hindu ritual that uses astrology and natal charts to pick names. We believe that the names that we give our children is somehow determinant of their futures, and often, parents will choose a name (within the rules of the process, of course) that includes a kind of wish for who their child will grow to be, something that almost everyone can understand.

Other times, our names are one of the epithets of a Hindu deity. This can puzzle some people in the West, who might view naming your child after a god as a kind of arrogance or self-importance, but the idea in Indian cultures is completely different. By naming your child after a particular version of god (each epithet references a particular aspect of the god), it is both a hope that the child will live up to the name and also fulfills the idea that God is everywhere and in everyone. Calling the different names of a god is also considered auspicious, so naming people after a god is a part of that sentiment.

The cultural backgrounds behind choosing names can be complex and confusing, but also incredibly fascinating, in my opinion. The generational poems of Chinese naming customs allow for an entire generation of children to be named with something in common. I won’t get into the specifics, but you can read a little bit about generational poems here.

That brings me to the title of this post. As you may know, I have a Chinese name that I use exclusively for speaking in Chinese: 羅常羲 (Pinyin: luó cháng xī, Jyutping: lo4 soeng4 hei1). I got this name after multiple Chinese friends of mine asking me if I wanted one, so when I went to a Taiwanese cultural exhibition in Grand Central Station, my friends had a calligrapher make a name for me.

My real name is kind of clunky to say in Chinese (or rather the Sinicized version of my name), especially given the way people call each other in Chinese. Very often, since people can have similar-sounding or even identical first names, Chinese speakers will address each other using their full names. My name is apparently somewhat obscure, so I might be able to get away with just 常羲, but it would be more appropriate to use the full name. I’m OK with using this name partly due to convenience as well as because I didn’t mind having the name, since I kind of like it.

Now, this may contrast with the sentiment of the photo in this post, since you might expect me to tell my Chinese friends to say my name correctly. The thing is, the issue wasn’t that my friends couldn’t pronounce my name, but rather for the purposes of learning the Chinese language, it wasn’t especially suited to being pronounced the way it really is. And that, I’m willing to concede, and like I said: I don’t mind.

The thing is that when I was in elementary school, many students and teachers found my name (Shashank) difficult to pronounce, and many people wanted to call me “Sean”. Maybe because I was impetuous and defensive, I didn’t like that name. I wanted people to call me the name I chose to be called, and they had to pronounce it the way I wanted them to. Today, people trying to nickname me “Sean” still makes me a little uneasy, so I usually politely request that they use my real name. Even now, I still wonder why it was so difficult for them to say, considering my name is only two syllables.

The point is that I refuse to be called anything except Shashank and nicknames that I actually approve of. This goes for anyone, anywhere. You all deserve to have yourself be called what you wish. People should either pronounce the name correctly or shouldn’t say it at all. Obviously, this can sound a little extreme, and I make exceptions for people whose sound inventories don’t include certain sounds. It’s a problem when I know people are more than capable of pronouncing a name correctly, and still refuse to try and pronounce a name the way someone wants, all because they’re too lazy to ask.

In my freshman year at NYU, I’ve met some people who have non-English names, and purposely go with a heavily Anglicized pronunciation of their name, even though it’d be pretty easy for people to pronounce it as it’s written in the language (obviously within reason). At first, I was a little put off by it, but I have learned that how we pronounce our names is up to us, and if that means “white”-ifiying it versus the traditional pronunciation, so be it. I might not like it, but again: it’s not for me to decide.

The reality is that this idea of not using people’s real names or somehow compelling them to change the pronunciation or the name entirely for someone else’s convenience is often discussed in the context of ethnic minorities. This happens to a lot of people with “unconventional” or “foreign” names, regardless of race. But in the context of minorities in the US like myself, this often feeds into very subtle dynamics of cultural repression and assimilation, and it is something that we must work against. But again: the choice is not always ours to decide (if at all).

The fundamental difference between my Chinese name and “Sean” is that I’m OK with one and not the other. Someone’s name is inviolable, and it’s not up to anyone to tell them to change it or how to pronounce it. The moral of this little story is: always ask someone how to pronounce their name, and earnestly try to pronounce it they way they want, not what’s most convenient for you. If they let you off with a mispronounced syllable or sound, then that’s fine. But respect what they have to say. It’s their name, not yours.