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Miss Yum and Mr. Bum Suck

Okay, okay, I know, it’s a cheap joke, and one all too common on cynical expat blogs. But please, wait, wait, hear me out!

Sometimes you really do end up with students in your class, or friends you meet in other ways, who have these names that are just, well… they’re things you can’t help but grin at, because you’re an Anglophone and because people should just not be named that sort of thing.

Like Miss Yum.

Okay, really, it was Miss Yeom, but it was pronounced yum, as in, what people say when they see food they want to eat. Or what a certain kind of guy would say when he sees a girl he wants to… well, you get the idea. (And Koreans innately get the idea too. A man who is given to uncouth comments, and who sees an attractive woman, might exclaim to his friends that she “would be delicious” and it’s a reference to her sex appeal. The word “delicious” is so often used in food that it’s obviously metaphorical. She was a very pretty young lady, very stylish and so on… meaning, the kind of woman you could easily imagine some guy grinning and saying, “Yum!” when he saw her.

Well, I’d been training my students to begin their presentations by introducing themselves in a formal manner, and on this one particular day, Miss Yeom stood up and said, “Good afternoon, I’m Miss Yeom and I’m happy to have this chance to talk to you about…” (etc.)

She asked me, at some point later on, why I was grinning at the beginning of her speech, and I honestly told her, “Well, I think when you introduce yourself, you ought to use your whole name. That is, say ‘Miss Naehwa Yeom,’ [NOT her real name] because otherwise, it sounds funny. It sounds like saying, ‘Miss Delicious’ [but I said that in Korean] which sounds weird when you introduce yourself that way. It’s not your fault, you have a fine and wonderful name in Korean, but in English it’s a little unusual-sounding, and you can avoid people being distracted by giving your full name.”

That was cool, she got it and thought it was funny, and made a habit of introducing herself in a less distracting or embarassing way. But sometimes, it’s not so easy. For example, one young lady I hung out with for a while, whose name was Mi Seok. Pronounced “me-suck”. Which, you know, is the kind of name that just summons up bad American military films about Vietnam. (“Me love you long time,” rings a bell.)

I never, ever told her about why her name might provoke giddy jokes, and it’s not just because we teetered on the brink of getting involved: I had the sense there was no point in telling her, and that it might just make her feel badly. I’d heard stories of kids being told their name, especially a name like “Beom Seok” (Bum Suck), was laugh-out-loud funny (in an unfortunate and demeaning way) in English. I’d heard stories of parents legally changing their children’s names when they found out.

Well, it’s one thing when you’re dealing with kids, of course, and usually I’d just ignore the cultural disconnect, or even some of the Korean-specific teasing. (Though when So Yeon, Sae Yeon, and Ji Hyun sat together in a row and a boy in class pointed out that they were So-Sae-Ji–which sounds exactly how Koreans pronounce the word sausage–I have to admit, it was comic brilliance and I never let that one go.)

But those of you out there, who teach adults, and who teach more than just language–who work on  stuff like intercultural communication, on business communication, that sort of thing: do you come out and explain why someone’s given name sounds incongruous to a Westerner? Do you spill the beans about how someone’s name sounds like an off-colour joke in English, like the invitation to suck on someone’s backside? What workarounds do you suggest? An English name? (I’m usually quite hostile to the idea of English names, but when someone’s name sounds like a dirty joke in English, it looks more expedient to me.) A contraction of the name? (Mi Seok becomes Mimi or something?) Do you just tell them and then insist they know the joke, but ignore it or laugh along and have a sense of humor about it, but keep using the name in all English interactions?

It’s a tough question, and I wonder whether most teachers have a policy about it, rooted in some kind of philosophy of cross-cultural respect balanced with expedience and so on, or whether people play it by ear, or just have an honesty-first policy… I’m really curious.

As for me, I definitely play it by ear, which is why I never tell little kids if their names sound like hilarious things in English, and why I only ever tell adults I think will (a) encounter people with whom this might come up, or (b) who seem likely to “get it” while (c) seeming unlikely to be overly hurt, offended, or distressed too much by the surprise.

How about you?

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