On getting our names “whitesplained”

The phrase “mansplaining” is defined as follows, according to wikipedia: “to explain something to someone, typically a man to woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.” It can easily be generalized to the case when a dominant social group tries to explain something to someone from a less dominant social group. This is particularly an issue when it comes to Chinese names and native English speakers trying to dictate to us how to say our own names ‘in English’.

This is particularly a problem for my wife, who has the very common Chinese surname ‘Wang’. According to this source (written in Chinese), there are over 93 million people in China (which does not include the diaspora, which my wife is a part of) with that surname. Most native English speakers pronounce it as spelt, which is like ‘bang’ but with a w in front. In fact, the correct pronunciation is closer to ‘Wong’ or ‘Wung’. There is no word in English that sounds exactly like how it sounds in Chinese, so one could be forgiven if they can’t pronounce it exactly right. This is not the problem.

The problem is that people tell my wife, when she corrects them on how to say her surname, that she’s incorrect. She hears people say “well in English it’s just said that way”. Many people tell her that it’s because she’s not a native speaker and therefore have an accent, that her pronunciation is flawed.

Why is this an issue? Well, it is absolutely insulting to say the least. To suggest that we don’t know how to say our own names is preposterous. The other issue at hand is that there is a flagrant lack of respect for our language. This issue flared up on a recent trip where we noticed a member of our group didn’t know the ‘correct’ pronunciation of Mexican food items such as quesadilla or tortilla. In particular, she didn’t know that the double l in these words are supposed to be a ‘yee’ sound. Upon closer examination, it seems that native English speakers have no problem adopting the actual correct pronunciation of a wide variety of foreign words. Nobody insists on pronouncing the following words ‘as written’, and in fact if you tried to pronounce these words using the usual rules of the English language, someone will correct you on it. These include:

Tortilla, quesadilla, fajita, gelato, latte, cappuccino, schadenfreude, de ja vu, jalapeño, etc.

Notice that all of these are words from another European language. It appears that native English speakers have no problem accepting that these words are not English words and therefore deserve to be pronounced the way that the original language conceived, but that Chinese surnames do not deserve the same courtesy. In fact, even on surnames, there is a double standard. If someone with a European sounding name insists on a pronunciation, nobody suggests that they simply need to say their name ‘the English way’.

So, today I say enough is enough. Please respect us when we say how our name is pronounced and do your best to pronounce it that way, instead of condescendingly imply that we’re speaking Chinglish.


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