Sunday, August 24, 2008

You Are Who I Say You Are

I was thinking this morning of my best friend in high school, now deceased, whose name was Mary Lou. We all went to a Catholic school and every time she wrote her name on a school assignment, the nun would cross out the middle name "Lou" and replace it with "Louise". "No, that's not correct," my friend would say. "It's Lou. My birth certificate says 'Lou', not 'Louise'." But still the nun insisted it had to be "Louise" (because "Lou" is not a saint's name). My friend's birth name was not acceptable; she was forced to use the one the nun had assigned to her.

Then there was a friend from college days, Vladimer, from Slovakia. He had been renamed "Val" by his co-workers, who couldn't, apparently, pronounce a "v" and an "l" together.

These are examples of the perhaps unconscious reactions by people to the concept of Otherness, i.e., you encounter something that is not familiar or that somehow bothers you; it makes you a bit uncomfortable. Your solution is to change the situation to make it more acceptable. So you rename the person or thing, and in doing so reveal to the person involved, as well as everyone else, a subconscious desire to cancel out the Otherness. Some will acquiesce to this, out of a desire to be accepted or assimilated, and adjust accordingly. Others, however, may feel that a portion of their self identity has been compromised, and in some cases, forever altered.

Vladimer didn't seem to mind becoming Val. But Mary Lou stubbornly fought, from her desk in the third grade, to not become a Mary Louise.

Dunno why these thoughts popped into my head this morning, perhaps it was the winding down of the Olympics and I'm reminded again that since the Chinese began occupying Tibet, the Tibetan language and culture are being systemically wiped out. You can apparently get arrested for possessing a picture of the Dalai Lama. (Shades of the pesky Borg: "You WILL assimilate!") Kind of like we did with the Native-American Indians, discouraging and downright forbidding them to speak in their own language--and renaming them. (The goal of Indian education from the 1880s through the 1920s was to assimilate Indian people into the melting pot of America by placing them in institutions where traditional ways could be replaced by those sanctioned by the government.)[1]

What is it about Otherness that threatens us so? Why do we feel we have to make others be just like us in order to feel completely comfortable with them? It happens all the time, and not just with foreigners. People of some religions cannot rest until they have converted people of another religion, or of no religion, to their particular way of thinking. How many wars have resulted as a result of this type of mindframe?

I read an interesting review recently, by Naz Rassool of Tove Skutnabb-Kangas's book Linguistic Genocide in Education--or Worldwide Diversity and Human Rights? (2000) "Skutnabb-Kangas draws on experiences of people in the USA to highlight the different pressures on some immigrants to change their names as a prerequisite of belonging to the dominant group within the country of adoption. Other contemporary examples include the widespread pressures for workers employed by Western transnational companies located within, for example, the Far East to adopt a Western (Christian) name."[2]

Check out Skutnabb-Kangas's 2002 essay entitled Language Policies and Education: The Role of Education in Destroying or Supporting the World's Linguistic Diversity.

Myriad thoughts on a lazy Sunday morning, over a cup of lukewarm Chinese flower tea.

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