There are times when we find certain names harder to pronounce than others. Maybe ethnic names, cultural names or names with more than a few syllables. Names we have never heard of that make us stop and wonder if we’ll ever get the pronunciation down pat.
I was born Mabel Kwong in Australia to Chinese-Malaysian migrant parents. Or Kwong Li Teng (lee ting/lìtíng, 丽婷), Mabel – that’s how my name is written on official documents in Malaysia and Singapore. While the first-middle-last-name convention is standard in the Western world, surname/cultural names usually come first before first names in Chinese culture – think last-first-name or first-last-middle-name conventions in a culture where family and seniority are esteemed.
Although I go by Mabel in professional and social settings, I’ve encountered numerous people who are convinced that that’s not my real name, lumping me in the same boat with those going by non-Anglo names. Sometimes these instances are annoying. Sometimes there is more to these instances than meets the eye.
Talking about language is confusing. Mother tongue, first language, native language and so on, we all define these phrases differently. And each of these definitions aren’t wrong at all since each phrase holds different meanings for each of us.
The other weekend I thought about this as I walked through the shopping centre near my place. Walking briskly, I passed by the stall selling organic beauty products, passed right in front of a middle-aged-looking Caucasian female stall attendant.
“Ni hao!” she exclaimed. I slowed my walking speed. What? She’s assuming I understand Chinese. Assuming that Mandarin is my mother tongue, which isn’t. It’s Cantonese. No, wait. My family speak Chinese too…so it’s also my mother tongue…
Sport. Most Australians love it and it’s almost a religion in Australia. If we don’t play sports, we usually watch it: Aussie Rules Football (AFL or footy, a ball game played with hands and feet), cricket, rugby, netball and soccer to name a few. We also host numerous sporting tournaments each year like the Australian Open (tennis, golf), F1 and Melbourne Cup (horse racing).
When I was a kid living in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, P.E. classes consisted of playing sport, usually baseball or obstacle courses where you stepped through tires to get to the finish line. The teacher picked two athletic classmates as team captains and the latter picked their teams. Skinny Asian me was always the last student left standing alone, waiting to be chosen…
When it comes to proudly singing and talking about our national anthem Advance Australia Fair, Australians are divided on this. Some of us are proud of our national anthem, and some of us not so proud.
In the 1990s, I went to pre-school in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne and don’t remember singing Advanced Australia Fair except at assembly on Fridays. After pre-school, I moved to Malaysia and Singapore for more school. Some years ago, I returned to Melbourne and finished my last years of high school here and my classmates and I never had to sing the anthem at assembly.
There’s the stereotype that Asians are smart at school, always doing very well and coming in top of the class. There’s the stereotype that Asians get straight A’s on their exams and are academically gifted.
Not to brag but I was one of these students in high school and university. While doing the O’Levels in Singapore, I brought home trophies for the best student in English across my cohort and getting six distinctions in my final year of schooling there. So I well and truly fit this stereotype.