By Chizobam Ekwerike-Oluikpe
If Newcomers’ Edition of The Voice were a thing, I would probably bring down the house doing a cover of Destiny Child’s ‘Say My Name’. Heck, I already sound like Beyonce in the shower; it would be easy. I can see myself drowning in waves of constant applause.
Wait for it!
(Chorus) Say my name, say my name Only if we are age mates And if you’re just a kiddo You dare not say my name Say my name, Say my name Kid, you’re acting kinda shady Calling me Ms. Lady You dare not say my name
Okay, that cover would be awkward – almost akin to those uncomfortable moments that we witness in our first few weeks or months in Canada as newcomers that could potentially leave us feeling disoriented as we try to adapt to an unfamiliar culture.
Among other things, newcomers from non-western countries often grapple with kids’ happy-go-lucky manner of addressing adults by their first names. It feels shockingly alien to us and makes us uncomfortable. The sound of our names from a kid’s mouth irks the hell out of us. Don’t say my name, don’t say my name!
Newcomers with strongly rooted ethnic traditions are shocked by this first name game because where we come from, a child will not dare to address adults by their first names. It is taboo and seen as highly disrespectful. For example, In Africa, kids show respect to adults by addressing them with specific honorifics. It is not uncommon for African children to refer to adults not related to them by blood as aunty or uncle, or Mr. or Ms. Anything but the bearer’s first name. Otherwise, the child is tagged ‘disrespectful’ with a questionable upbringing. This is not unique to Africans. In Asia, it is rude and offensive for a child to call an older person by name. Teachers, elders and parents are revered and addressed by formal titles.
Most immigrant parents experience cultural dissonance because raising kids in a foreign country is different from what is applicable in their home countries. They experience internal conflict as they adjust to a different culture in their new country. They have to decide between sticking with their traditional values or adopting western value; the lines are not always fine.
This cultural difference often leaves immigrant parents mulling over how their kids should address adults. They cringe at the thought of hearing their children calling adults by their first names. They do not only teach their kids never to call adults by their first names; they also try to set a ‘good’ example. Rather than saying a dismissive hello, immigrant parents often acknowledge older ones by ‘properly’ greeting them according to the time of the day, and always followed by a Sir or Ma’am or preceded by Mr. or Ms. To them, it is a sign of respect.
On the other hand, for most Canadians, calling adults by their first names have nothing to do with respect. While in schools, the rules are clear – teachers must be addressed with a preferred title, Mr. or Ms. Outside of school, the rules are pretty much non-existent and most people are indifferent. To them, the first name game does not matter in the grand scheme of things.
In retrospect, Canadians are exceedingly polite people. They are a kind, considerate and helpful bunch. Show me a kinder and good-mannered set of humans. I’ll wait! So, since we all agree on the exemplary politeness of Canadians, does this mean that we should adopt their ‘respect template’?
Here’s what I think.
Kids should call adults whatever they want to be called. If an adult is comfortable being addressed by first name, that’s okay. If they prefer a little more courtesy (Hello sir, hi ma’am, hello Mr. Peacock, hi Ms. Peacock), that’s okay too. After all, the golden rule is no longer “treat people the way you want to be treated” but “treat people the way they want to be treated”.
If you have become accustomed to kids addressing you by your first name as a new immigrant and you are genuinely unbothered by this, congratulations, my friend, you have adjusted well to life in Canada. If you feel uncomfortable (read: angry) when kids address you by your first name, could you have an open mind to see that these kids were raised in a different environment? Most times, they are not being bratty. It is the cultural norm in Canada. If it bothers you so much, you could ask them to add a prefix of your choice when addressing you. I would like to witness your reaction when your future daughter-in-law calls you Bose or Min Yong.
Host nationals could make this struggle a little easier on immigrants by making an effort to understand our values and accommodate them. Here’s how they could be more accommodating: If an immigrant child chooses to address an adult with honorifics, the adult could desist from repeatedly trying to encourage the child to address him by his first name. This also applies to immigrant adults who prefer not to address older ones by their first names. If it makes them uncomfortable, could you indulge them?
For most immigrants, especially those of African or Asian descent, addressing older ones with honorifics is an ingrained reflex behaviour. Some of us, including our kids, cannot address an older person on a first-name basis.
And that should be okay.
As immigrants, there are many other cultural differences that we strive to adjust to. While many of these are not against the law, others could potentially put us on the wrong side of the law. Join me in the next issue to discuss the touchy subject of disciplining other people’s children.
Until then, pray tell, are you irked when kids call you by your first name? What was your experience as a new immigrant? Were you shocked or unbothered?