Nelson Mandela’s real name is Rolihlahla. He was given his English name on the first day of school by a teacher, as was the custom for black children living in South Africa at the time. English settlers struggled to pronounce and remember non-Western names (the clicks in some African languages were too tiresome for the British tongue) and they felt that new names would be an efficient remedy. Naming also helped to make settlers feel at home in this new, alien land. In fact, the renaming of places, landmarks and people was one of the primary means of colonising a country, since it erased indigenous identity. In order for all South Africans to conform to the country’s new identity as a colony, its existing history and cultures needed to be ignored.
Similar colonial habits were adopted in other African countries (the DRC being a notable example), many of which reinstated indigenous place names post-independence. (Sadly, Zimbabwe’s Mosi-oa-Tunya – “the smoke that thunders” – is still known as Victoria Falls.) In the “New South Africa”, as it was called in its post-democratic years, combating colonial nomenclature was an act of nation building. Geography books and maps were thrown in the bin as the country rapidly renamed all of its provinces, and many of its cities and streets. It was finally time for white people to learn Xhosa clicks, and for black South Africans to insist on being called by their real names.
This is why I cringe every time I see foreign English teachers in South Korea renaming their students. Apart from my African background, my own name informs my perspective on this issue. I’ve got a name you’ve never seen signify a white woman’s face. Not only is it an Asian name, but it’s primarily in use as a family name or a boy’s name. To top it off, my parents use a different pronunciation of the word. All this laid the foundations for a life full of mispronunciation and misspellings, with a pinch of racism every few years. Though my name is anomalous, no-one has ever suggested I should adopt an English name. Is this because I am white and have semi-Western cultural habits? Does my skin colour and native tongue so empower me that I can expect others to respect my individuality? It would appear so.
In the first English class of the year, it’s common practice for foreign teachers to ask students to provide an English name. From that day, they will be referred to by that name only. I’ve even seen worksheets that require students to pick a name from a list, which is also divided by gender (that deserves a whole other post). It is generally accepted that it’s too inconvenient for expats to get their tongues around Korean names. Excuses for not learning Korean names are marvellous, and include the likes of:
“Korean names all sound the same.”
More similar than Jenny, Jenna, Jennifer and Jessica?
“There are too many students with the same name.”
More than those named Mark, Michael, James, Ashley or Sarah?
“They are so difficult to pronounce.”
Names like Craig, Lionel and Christopher are particularly difficult for Korean speakers to pronounce, because they contain more than two syllables or have consonants placed next to each other. Korean names generally have two syllables and consonants are framed by vowels. Names with the letters L, V and F are also difficult to pronounce, since no equivalent exists in Hangeul.
“It would be easier for me to remember English names.”
This one is somewhat true, but it’s still an ethnocentric perspective. It may not be easy to remember words in another’s language, but to refuse to try shows an ignorance bordering intolerance.
Admittedly, many guest English teachers have over 500 students and it is practically impossible to learn the names of all students. I learnt about 20 out of the 700 names I had on my class lists last year, though I was familiar with about 600 of them in terms of their skill-level and personality. I doubt, however, that teachers would be able to remember 700 names if their classes were full of Ashleys and Stuarts.
“Koreans choose to have an English name.”
Many South Korean women choose to use skin-whitening cream or get eyelid surgery, but it doesn’t make these practices any less questionable. It’s true that many Korean people choose to adopt English names. However, this is arguably rooted in a kind of false consciousness – a belief that conforming to Western cultural expectations is harmless. Korean people benefit from this practice only by conforming to a hierarchy that places English above Korean.
Korea has a postcolonial history in which Koreans were forced to speak Japanese and take Japanese names. This attempt to erase Korean culture is one of the roots of the contemporary animosity between the two countries. It’s interesting, then, that English renaming doesn’t raise red flags.
I am not suggesting that English education in Korea is a form of colonisation. I learnt very quickly that Korean nationalism and ethnic pride is unbelievably strong, and no amount of such education will destroy Korean national identity. Renaming in Korea is just one more example of English speakers making themselves at home in foreign lands. I’d like to think it’s a narrow-minded attitude that can’t prevail. Many names now common in English-speaking countries originated in other languages and arrived via immigration or colonisation. An increasingly globalised world means that Korean names are set to become more familiar – even if only due to notorious North Korean leaders.
 While social change is evident in South Africa, it is admittedly slow in most respects. It is still common for black South African families to give their children both a traditional and English name. Many foreign workers in also choose English names for occupational purposes. My family once hired a Malawian gardener who went by the name of McDonald, since this was one of the first English names he saw in South Africa. If that isn’t the best example of the colonisation and commercialisation of identity, I don’t know what is.
 I’ve met people who speak of having a side to their personality that is expressed only when they are speaking English and using their chosen name. For some, this may speak of a desire to temporarily escape certain aspects of Korean culture, while others may find it a unique form of self-expression. Either way, it’s a creative and empowering act for the speaker.
 I am not a Marxist scholar, nor have I thoroughly researched the implications of this theory in postcolonial contexts. This application does exist, though, and I welcome comments from those more informed.