Contact or Colonization?

When I took American Literature 255 in college, the professor focused on the power struggle between those with it and without. By naming someone else’s homeland and even re-naming people, colonizers prevented the colonized from speaking up for themselves. All familiar places and things suddenly fall into strange syllables on the lips of strangers. Today, I suppose we refer to this phenomenon as “Columbusing.” One with power or privilege steals more from those without, a sort of inverted, perverse Robin Hood. He steals from the poor to give to the rich.

Typography via

If we’re not careful, this is what ESL becomes sometimes. We sub in thoughtful names with meaning and heritage, parceling out lame, paper-thin “American” adaptations. Cheng-Yu becomes Alan, Wan-Ting becomes Sarah. Did we think about this a long time? Is there purpose to our decisions? Not really. What it is is appropriation. Alan and Sara are probably easier for native English teachers to say, but I’m not sure the change does that much for a student.

As my parents also gave me an assimilated English name, I don’t advise it. Growing up, I dreaded hearing roll call. Teachers could never pronounce my name correctly, heaving a sigh of relief when I provided the substitute “Sherry.” Maybe a chuckle followed. Once, a high school teacher even said, “Well, that makes a lot of sense,” while arching her eyebrow. I hated it. I remember crying about my given name, wondering how I could permanently erase it. Really, it was a way to hate myself and my ethnicity.

I hate that we’re doing this to kids. Despise it. Re-naming them, molding them into an ideal standard of our own making. “You don’t have an English name? Oh, let me give you one now before the world explodes.” Language learning caters to the speaker. Language is not static, but the way we prescribe it causes most to think language festers. Instead, words should grow, morph and turn into new things depending on where they’re planted.

Words can fuel a revolution or make us feel like gutter water depending on how we use them. Naming. Naming is an offshoot of that. Perhaps instead of naming children hastily, we can research what their names mean and give them a few options. A student needs to have the freedom to grow and understand language, especially their names.

I don’t understand the rigidity. I don’t understand the strict rules or the need to maintain order.

Perhaps I really am better suited to literature rather than language learning. Perhaps they really are different fields.


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