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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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle