I was in China for five weeks. For the first four of those weeks I was a student in an intensive language program at a university in Shanghai (the last week was dedicated to exploring before I had to come home). Although I did meet other Americans in Shanghai, I was the only American in the intensive language program. I met a few students from Pakistan, a few from Mongolia, and one from the Czech Republic (she was awesome), but about 90 percent of the students in this program were from Korea. On the first day of the program, all of the students were given a placement test to see which level of Chinese they should take. I placed into level B2 (I think the levels went from A to F, F being the most advanced). So did eleven students from Korea.
This was interesting. I was the only non-Korean student in my class, so even though we were all strangers to China, they had each other and I was alone. Fortunately, most of them knew at least basic English and we were all using Chinese, so communication wasn’t too difficult. I made some really amazing friends and I learned far more about Korean culture than I expected to (mostly because I was studying in China, not Korea). I actually started to pick up a Korean accent when I spoke Chinese. This wasn’t on purpose and at first I didn’t even realize I was doing it, but after two weeks of hearing them mix up the /z/ with the /dʒ/ sound, I automatically started doing the same. For example, instead of saying “zoo,” a Korean would pronounce “joo.” My Chinese friend thought this was hilarious.
As much fun as Chinese with a Korean accent was, it had a terrible affect on my name.
It’s customary for foreigners in Asia to take on Asian names. I’m sure this helps the natives remember what to call us, because our names sound as alien to them as theirs do to us. It’s also customary for Asians to take on western names when they leave Asia or study English. Almost all of the Chinese and Korean students that I met gave me an English name when we were introduced, and it took me forever to learn what their real names were.
The first time I met my Chinese friend, he introduced himself as Fred. This was the name his English teacher had assigned him, and I guess he thought it would be easier for me to remember Fred than his actual name (it was, but I eventually learned it). One day we were supposed to meet somewhere on campus but I couldn’t find him, so I decided to be brave and ask the other students in the room if they had seen him. It was a room full of Chinese students, and all it took was a single glance around the room to confirm that I was the only one there who was not 100% Asian. Picture it. A small brown person walking around a room full of Chinese people asking for Fred. Most of the conversations I had went something like this:
Chinese student, after a quick glance around the room: “You’re looking for someone named Fred?”
Chinese student: “You think there’s someone named Fred here?”
Me, hanging my head in shame: “Yes.”
Chinese student: “Well, there isn’t.”
Because of this custom of adapting names, all of the non-Asian students were assigned new names on the first day of school.
As I’ve mentioned before, I’m part Chinese. I actually have a Chinese last name, and while I was in Shanghai I met Chinese people with the same last name as me. Despite this, for some reason, the teacher still felt the need to give me a new name. This in itself was irritating, both because I felt like I had been robbed of my identity and because it caused me to believe that anyone who was not a Chinese citizen would be assigned a new name, which was not true. Several times during the first week, after a classmate would tell me their name I would say, “Ok, so what’s your real name?” Then they would give me blank stare and say, “That is my real name.” It turns out that Korean names are so similar to Chinese names that no change was necessary. My teacher, however, felt that it was necessary to change my name, which was the only actual Chinese name in the entire class.
The Chinese name that I was assigned was Bu Lu Si (pronounced /boo loo sih/). Eventually I accepted my new identity and responded when that name was spoken. This was no problem when it was my Chinese teachers that were addressing me, but with my Korean classmates it became an entirely different name.
There is a stereotype that Asians mix up the /l/ and the /r/ sound. This is true, but not all Asian languages are created equal. I’ve heard Chinese and Japanese people do this to some extent, but it seems to be the most pronounced with Koreans. Also, they tend to roll their Rs. Another thing about the Korean accent is they tend to cut their vowel sounds short. In some cases, they seemed to omit the vowel sounds entirely and cram as many consonants together as possible.
Like with my name.
For five weeks, instead of Bu Lu Si, I had eleven people calling me Bruce.