What’s In a Name

Written by: Jade Courchesne

“F**k, I’m in a group with international students.”

Let’s unpack this sentence. 

Let’s talk about how someone I used to know would look at a list of names for a group project and assume that the outcome would be detrimental to their grade; that they would be pulling all the weight; that the assignment would take twice as long to finish; that they “can’t even pronounce the names of the people in their group” and couldn’t be bothered enough to try. 

Now throw yourself into the position of a new student, in a new city, on a new continent. You’re away from your parents, your home, your old connections. You’re filled with such a deep-seated sense of homesickness that you feel nauseous half of the time. So, you try to meet people, you try to work harder, to socialize. You build networks; you build a home. You go to class; you work on group projects. And then your efforts are immediately dismissed. On the mere basis of a name on a sheet of paper. 

For many international students, the academic challenges that often come along with being a university student can be exponentially more daunting, especially if their grasp of the local language is not as strong as the others around them. That said, these students are frequently not even given the chance to meet their group members before being confined to the stereotype of the anti-social foreigner or the lazy freeloader. Speaking personally, I have noticed an uncomfortable trend that tends to run through some of my local Canadian classmates. The specific reaction that I spoke of at the start of this article came from a conscious bias against Asian-identifying international students with Chinese names like ShunTing, or XinJie. Their names were picked apart and mocked by this person, who then went on to complain about the quality of their work merely because of a few grammatical errors that could have easily been fixed at the click of a button. It’s not lost on me that the very same person had no trouble learning the pronunciations of their Eastern European colleagues, whose names were arguably more complex and less phonetic. 

Mispronouncing someone’s name, especially when done so intentionally, presents a lack of care in respecting a person’s individuality. It’s a decision to use their background against them, to weaponize their ‘otherness’, and to invalidate their existence in a culture that continues to prioritize whiteness. My own last name, Courchesne, blends in well enough with the other names on my course list. I am, on paper, free of the negative expectations that come with a foreign name. Though, this then culminates to a surprise for groupmates who notice my biracial background and make it a point to congratulate me on my grasp of the English language, as though they were expecting otherwise based on my appearance. My friends with East Asian last names like Chiu and Lee are given the same treatment, despite English being their first language. Importantly, we are not wrong for making initial assumptions about others, in fact, it’s how we learn about one another, how we start to break down the barriers between different cultures and backgrounds. But, when the assumptions are never corrected, they can become harmful to those who are just trying to succeed in a new environment that is quick to judge them.

To be a sincere ally to a marginalized community is to be patient and empathetic. It’s to ask questions that come from a place of genuine curiosity, rather than ostracizing the students that could already be having a difficult time processing the same information in a second language. We are not defined by the assumptions we make, but rather by our humility in acknowledging that we can be wrong. Ask them how their name is pronounced and respect its ties to that person’s individual heritage. When working in a group setting, it’s not a bad idea to ask for clarification if you need it, to make sure that the team is on the same page moving forward. Chances are that most people are interested in working towards a good outcome if they feel motivated and comfortable in a collaborative process. We have the privilege and benefit of being native English speakers, something that gives us an advantage in helping other people where they might need it. Create a supportive environment where international students need not feel excluded and isolated from the in-group. I would also recommend directing them to other resources that could help them thrive both socially and academically. It’s the little things that can really turn someone’s day around, especially if they feel beaten down by repeated frustrations with a system that does not prioritize them. Had I inherited my mother’s last name instead of my father’s, I would have been a part of the group that the student was talking about when they looked at their class list and said “f**k, I’m in a group with international students.” Give your groupmates a chance to be themselves, to exist outside of your preconceptions. I promise that they will appreciate the extra mile and you will be surprised at what you could learn from someone who may think differently than you do, given the right time and space. 

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