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Why British awkwardness can make it tough having a foreign name

From being given a curious stare to having your CV overlooked, having an ethnic name can bring out the worst in British awkwardness.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation published its reaction this week to the recent British Social Attitudes Survey results, concluding that racial prejudice is “bad economics”. The piece also remarks upon a DWP study that showed people with “names associated with ethnic minority groups” were almost a third less likely to be called for a job interview than someone with a ‘White British’ name.

In fact, there are examples of people changing the name they put at the top of their CVs in order to aid them in their job hunts. Only last year, Virgin Atlantic was taken to an employment tribunal by a man called Max Kpakio, who claimed they had turned him down because of his name, as they accepted him when he reapplied under the name "Craig Owen". (Although he eventually lost the tribunal, because he'd changed more than just his name on the second application).

As someone without a ‘White British’ name – though, as it’s Armenian, I suppose it is the very definition of Caucasian – this brought to mind the various implications of having a foreign name in modern Britain. Among decent people, these are mainly socially awkward, often superficial, repercussions, but it’s easy to see how they could filter up to a prospective employer’s mindset. It's the British propensity for wanting an easy life. A seemingly innocuous, often endearing attitude. But not when it means avoiding someone because their name's a bit funny.

First, pronunciation. This is a factor that plays out a splurge of Britain’s neuroses in one botched jumble of syllables. Working out how to converse with a stranger, while constantly feeling on the brink of offending them. With different accents involved. It’s just one big two-way apology.

Because if we’re going to start a conversation with someone new – already a highly unsavoury idea for many of us, let’s admit – a supposedly difficult name makes this minefield even trickier to navigate. And then we have to make sure we remember the name in question, as it would be unthinkable to slip into terms of endearment (“Mate”) or the weird gender-political mess of “Sir” and “Miss” – these options are conveniently anonymous, but too despicable to contemplate for a decent professional human person.

And then once you’ve met someone with a foreign name – particularly if you’ve read it rather than heard it from the scary, cosmopolitan horse’s mouth – how to ensure you pronounce it correctly? We couldn’t possibly ask. That would require a potentially awkward conversational opener. So people generally just go for it, eyes forward, resolutely spluttering through each impossible syllable, or avoid the issue completely.

I’ve encountered this problem of politeness in all sorts of contexts: missing a doctor’s appointment for not recognising my mispronounced name being called; a family I stayed with on holiday consistently calling me “Louche” for the entirety of my stay (when I hadn’t once lounged on their chaise longue); the presenter on Radio 5 Live soldiering through an interview repeatedly addressing me as “Anoosh Shake-a-Line”. Which is not how it’s pronounced, but meant a more amusing 10.45pm weekday news slot for my listening friends, at least.

Essentially, it’s the conversational equivalent of when BBC newsreaders take a deep breath and just power through those ambiguously pronounced names that crop up from time to time. Boko Haram. Sven-Goran Eriksson. Gaddafi. Farage.

But mispronunciation isn’t the biggest problem. It’s usually by the politically correct and polite people who just want to say your name with minimal fuss; their hearts are in the right place, even if their diphthongs aren’t. No. It’s the “oo-er, that’s exotic” aspect that’s worse. Because introduce yourself to someone with perhaps more Ukippy credentials than you’d hope, and you’ll usually receive the response:

“So where are you from?”

To which I take great pleasure in replying “London”, and watching them nod bemusedly, their eyes betraying insurmountable confusion that I haven’t regaled them apologetically with tales of a journey from the harsh plains of Anatolia to Zone 3.

These irritating, occasionally vaguely xenophobic, social implications of having a foreign name in Britain aren’t nearly as bad as being declined for a job interview on account of it. But it’s worth remembering that awkwardness in conversation could easily translate to awkwardness in considering CVs. And that, mate, is discrimination.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder