“My name is Keyuxi, and I go by Summer.”
This is how Summer Zhou, a pre-junior marketing and communications major at Drexel, introduces herself to her peers through email. This is how she must introduce herself to anybody she communicates with over email, and anybody that she wishes to develop a long-term relationship with. During short day-to-day interactions, she goes by Summer. Explaining her name to each person she meets simply takes too much time out of her day.
Zhou is from Anhui, a Chinese province near Shanghai. There, she says, people usually go by their last names, which is common in Asian countries. She would most likely not react or respond to the name Keyuxi, so she is not attached to the name.
She also says that it’s trendy to have an English nickname in Asian countries.
For Zhou, choosing an English name was exciting — she had the freedom to choose a name that she felt suited her. It’s common for people to choose a name from their favorite movie or TV show. While many international students change their name, others use their original names to their advantage. “It makes you stand out — like using yourself as a personal brand,” Zhou said. “They want to have their own authenticity.” In fields like marketing, standing out with a unique name can be a distinct advantage.
Though picking a new name was exciting, Zhou definitely felt pressure to do so.
“There is pressure, absolutely. You want to change your name because nobody gets it right, or they’re never going to know how to spell it. It’s just confusion. Because not everybody is that open and diverse. They will kind of stereotype you or give you an extra look because they have no idea what you said,” Zhou explained.
Some names have very specific pronunciations and are very hard for Western language speakers to pronounce. So, in an effort to make the transition to American life smooth and fit in more easily, many international students choose English names for convenience purposes. It’s hard not to stand out, said Zhou, when you have a foreign name.
While English names are chosen for convenience when adjusting to a new school, they are also chosen to avoid discrimination in hiring. It’s troubling to think that a qualified individual could be turned down for a job because they do not have an English name, but this is a very real concern for people moving to America from other countries.
Zhou said that having an English name to write on a job application gives her a better chance of avoiding discrimination.
Zhou clarified that, while it is important to be educated on the topic of diversity, she understands that languages vary greatly and it can be difficult to pronounce foreign sounds and syllables. The most important thing to keep in mind is respect: “If you can’t pronounce their name, don’t try too hard — don’t treat it as a strange thing. It’s not an alien language. Don’t treat is as a strange name, but adapt to it. If you don’t know, just maybe think of a nickname for that person. Try your best not to embarrass others or yourself,” Zhou said. “Just show respect and be open to learning new things.”
In China, Zhou and her peers learned English from a young age. Though sometimes it is challenging, they are determined to further their learning. Whether it’s “Jack, or Elizabeth, or Timothy, we keep trying because we’re curious,” Zhou explained.
This curiosity and willingness to learn shows respect to international students. “Even though you might not maintain a long-term relationship with your classmates, at least try to remember their names. It’s a pretty respectful thing,” Zhou said.
In a survey of 50 American college students, 90 percent agreed that American students have a responsibility to be educated about other cultures and languages to help ease the pressure international students feel to go by English names. Matt Shults of Burlington County, NJ, added that he hopes that if he studied in another country, the people there would attempt to pronounce his name correctly, and he would show international students the same respect.
“I think the only ‘should’ about it is the question of if someone should have the freedom and uninfluenced ability to make the choice for themselves,” said Christine Doman of Bellmawr, NJ.
Anna Gordover, a first-year communication major at Drexel, shared the same sentiment: “I think that ultimately it’s the student’s choice to go by whatever name they feel more comfortable with, but I also think that as a community we should make an effort to educate ourselves so they don’t feel like they’re obligated to go by an American name.”
Ekaterina Grigoreva was an international student from Russia at Jamestown Community College in Jamestown, NY. She chose to go by the name Kate. “I decided to go by Kate because it’s easier for people in the US and it’s also better for me because my name is not being pronounced incorrectly. It doesn’t offend me or anything, but Kate is just easier. Maybe it’s just some type of trying to adjust and become a part of society” Grigoreva said.
While America is known as a country of diversity, there is a significant lack of education regarding other cultures, countries and languages. As stated by Summer Zhou, English speakers have a privilege — many countries learn the language, and things are often translated into English around the world.
While it can be difficult to learn words with non-native syllables and pronunciations, taking a few minutes to simply learn the names of classmates and acquaintances can go very far. The students previously mentioned have shown that they are ready to take the step. Taking the effort to learn the correct pronunciation of a peer’s name can go a long way in showing respect and acceptance of others.
Picking out a new name can be an exciting experience for international students. However, it is our responsibility to ensure that this decision is made free of pressure to conform or fear of discrimination.