Three teenage girls from China recently died, when their plane smashed into a sea wall in front of the runway at San Francisco International Airport on 6 July. The girls from Zhejiang, an eastern coastal province in China, were passengers on the South Korean Asiana Airlines Flight 214. Their dream of a fun and exciting summer camp in America was cruelly shattered.
In response to Lorelle’s blog exercises: How to Write about Something Someone Else Wrote, I’ll examine this tragedy from a fresh angle, a person’s name and its cultural identity.
How many people remember the victims’ names? The girls’ names were: Ye Mengyuan 叶梦圆 , Wang Linjia 王琳佳, and Liu Yipeng 刘易芃. Their names in Chinese meant “fulfilling dreams’, ‘grace’, and ‘lush’ respectively. However, the media was not interested in these names, which carried their parents’ hope and love.
People now seemed to remember the pilots’ fake oriental sounding names. The news anchor from KTVC, a TV station serving San Francisco Bay Area, told viewers the purported names of the pilots on Asiana Flight 214 were: “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk”, and “Bang Ding Ow”.
You don’t need to have a linguistic degree to feel that these names sound ‘funny’ in English: Something Wrong, We Too Low, Holy Fxxx, and Bang Ding Ow (Note: The plane made a bang on the runway, and ‘ding’ was heard, then people cried, “ow”.)
In this name blunder, some people are outraged and offended by the deeply rooted racist attitude against oriental people.
As an oriental person, I’m not angry by the hidden racist attitude, but I’m saddened by it. I’m saddened by the ignorance of some people, who don’t have the common sense about the languages around them, and who can’t tell a Korean name from a Cantonese Chinese name. Stephen Colbert, a famous US comedian, discussed this distasteful name blunder about racism humorously in this program.
Chinese name formation:
On name formation, while some English speakers may think “Ho Lee Fuk” is a totally ridiculous name, it can actually be a respectful, genuine name in its original Chinese characters. Last year, I wrote a craft post, The Only Chinese Word You Need to Know. This special word is 福, meaning luck and happiness. This character is pronounced fú in standard Mandarin Chinese, ‘fuk’ in Cantonese, and ‘hok’ in Hokkien, my mother tongue.
In Malaysia, where Chinese names are still transcribed in alphabet letters based on the sound of the language spoken by their ancestors, (Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Hainan, Teochew etc.), a person whose surname is 何 will have his surname transcribed as hé in Mandarin, and ho or hor in Cantonese and Hokkien.
Fuk the Happiness:
The use of the alphabet system in transcription is just a convenient way to decipher the Chinese characters, some of which are pictographs. While some sounds are ‘funny’ to the western ears, they’re definitely not to the Chinese. For example, if a southern person is named 何利福 or 何丽福, in the standard Mandarin spelling system called pinyin, these names will be represented as hé lì fú, but in Cantonese, this name is likely to be transcribed as Ho Lee Fuk. 何利福 or 何丽福 literally means fortune and happiness, or beauty and happiness.
A Korean American named Suey wrote powerfully in this post, The Role of Media in Modern Day Racism. The post was deservedly Freshly Pressed by WordPress. Suey reported racist tweets and comments following the plane tragedy. One of the tweets was: “of course the Korean plane crashed. Asians can’t drive, what makes them think they can fly a plane.”
It’s sad that the tragic Asiana plane crash has become an easy playground for some malicious and ignorant people to play their racist games, through their racial stereotyping and name insulting. These people have triggered anger and racial tension. Their ignorance about their neighbours, and their neighbours’ languages and cultures is saddening. The crude joke about the pilots’ bogus names has revealed how racism and prejudice never die. However, we’ll challenge them, and always rise above them.
My Related Posts:
Do sex, age and race matter?
Memorial: grief and celebration
This is a Chinese poem you can’t possibly perform
5 changes of a Chinese wife in England: on Language
The only Chinese word you need to know