Saturday, July 11, 2020

My Name Is Phuc Bui!

If you encounter a name that is difficult for you to pronounce the polite thing to do is to ask the person for the correct pronunciation and use it going forward. 

It is disrespectful to continually mispronounce someone's name after you've been told the correct pronunciation more than a few times. 

It's similar to being frequently mistaken for the only other Black man in your department when you differ greatly in age, height and looks, but I digress. 

Not every name in America will be of European origin. If Americans can pronounce Polish, Hungarian, or Russian names that are seemingly stuffed to excess with z's, y's, s's, and c's, if Americans know that Spanish generally lacks what we would consider a "j' sound and that Jose is pronounced "Ho-zay" and not "Joe-sie" then Americans can correctly pronounce names of non-European provenance.

Sometimes life imitates art. In the review of the film The Gentlemen I mentioned that there were jokes that were ethnically/racially based. The Gentlemen film used the exact example of what recently occurred to a young college student of Vietnamese origin, who like a film character, happened to have the name of Phuc.

A community college professor in Oakland, Calif., is on administrative leave after asking a Vietnamese-American student to “Anglicize” her name because he felt it sounded “offensive” in English. In a Wednesday night email exchange that was quickly shared to tens of thousands on social media, Matthew Hubbard, a professor in the Laney College mathematics department, repeatedly asked the student, Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen, to “Anglicize” her name because it “sounds like an insult in English.”

In response, Ms. Nguyen told the professor that his request “feels discriminatory” and that she would file a complaint with the school’s Title IX office if he could not call her by her given name.

"Your name in English sounds like F**k Boy. If I lived in Vietnam and my name sounded like Eat a D**k, I would change it to avoid embarrassment both on my part and on the part of the people who had to say it. I understand you are offended, but you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language,” Professor Hubbard replied. “I repeat my request.”

On Saturday, Professor Hubbard issued an apology on his now deleted Twitter account. “I apologize for my insensitive actions which caused pain and anger to my student, and which have now caused pain and anger to an untold number of people who read my two inappropriate emails on the Internet,” he wrote.

Ms. Nguyen could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday. Professor Hubbard said Ms. Nguyen was in his online trigonometry class, which had about 30 students.

Now in American English at least, ph at a word's beginning is almost invariably pronounced as "f" or pretty close to it. I couldn't think of any exceptions. Can you? 

Even the demonstrations by Vietnamese language speakers of the correct way to pronounce the name don't sound to me that different from "F**k boy".  

They just sound like a person with a Vietnamese accent saying "F**k boy". Perhaps if the Vietnamese name lacked a c sound or terminal c letter it would not remind some Americans of the profane insult. Perhaps in English the name should be spelled "Phoo Booey" in order to avoid unpleasantness.

There are simply some words or sounds that have an innocuous meaning in one language but are humorous, insulting, vulgar or even obscene in other languages. Say that you are in Germany and your host's wife or daughter has made some mashed potatoes for dinner. You tell her that you really enjoy her mushy mashed potatoes. You ask for her recipe because you like mushy stuff. 

Some Germans might snicker or laugh because the English word mushy is a homophone for the German word muschi which instead of meaning soft and pulpy as it does in English is in German a slang reference to a woman's ladyparts.

There are many such examples. The word deny in Spanish sounds like a racial slur in English. The Spanish word for curve means something more offensive in Serbian. The word for look in Finnish is an insult in Italian. And so on. Initially when I read this story I could not help but think of this classic Monty Python skit.

The problem with the Phuc Bui situation is not that her name could sound close to an obscene insult. I don't imagine that many people asked football legend Dick Butkus to change his name. The problem is that Professor Hubbard thought it was Phuc Bui's job to make him feel comfortable. Phuc Bui's name is her name, even if Hubbard has a problem with it.

So, again, the professor was 100% wrong to get into a back and forth with the young lady about Anglicizing her name. He had no business doing that. He certainly had no business telling her that her name reminded him of "Eat a d***". THAT was offensive and insulting. 

Ask for the correct pronunciation and keep it moving. The student is there to learn, not to hear the professor's musings on what her parents should have named her. The teacher is there to teach the subject. That's it. He or she can keep private thoughts on their students, private. What's so difficult about that? 
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