Thursday, 3 November 2011

Committed To Memory

I don't know how it has happened, but I have a class in which over half a dozen students have the last name Li.

Li, or Lee, is the most common last name in mainland China, like Smith or Jones in the U.S. A lot of people find common names easier to remember than hard ones, but they are the bane of my life. When I was teaching in California many years ago, I had a class with an abundance of Wangs, and one of my colleagues almost burst into tears when the seventh Zhang turned up in her class. Teachers seem to get students in last-name batches, and this semester the Lis are mine.

Chinese first names are mercifully (for me) more varied than Chinese last names, but they can be a bit mystifying at first. Like Chinese surnames, they have tones which I never fail to get wrong, and they include vowels I'm not yet familiar with, plus a lot of puzzling Qs, Zs, Ys and Xs. I'm slowly learning how to pronounce them, but even my students seem to prefer using Western names for each other. The first day of class, they happily give me their 'Christian' names (their term, not mine) and clearly expect me to use them. The names they choose are invariably extraordinary: Frederick, Lionel, Florence, Amelia, Ivy, Belinda, and Reginald. They seem to have been mined from some rich seam that hasn't been tapped in the last fifty years.

Throughout the first week of class, I used my students' Chinese names, stumbling through them gamely, determined to make a go of it. If I thought this might be appreciated, I was wrong. "Priscilla!" Hui Zhong reminded me with a pout, making me applaud the suitability of her choice. "Call me Harold," one boy told me firmly after I'd butchered his name for the third time. So I use the Western names that they have chosen for themselves, but even this isn't foolproof, as I am name-challenged even when the names aren't Chinese. I'm especially name-challenged when I have several names that are almost exactly alike, but my students have not yet grasped that the source of my confusion has more to do with my general name imbecility than my inability to understand Chinese. They can understand me being thrown by half a dozen Lis and a Liu, but they can't for the life of them understand why I get Jonathan, John, and Johnnie mixed up.

For me, the best way to remember names is by association or distinguishing features. I'm always delighted when my students remind me of other people; all I have to do is make a quick note on my roll sheet -- Liu Chengli: Uncle Roy! or Fang: tall, pale Bob de la Rosa -- and in no time at all, the name is fixed in my brain. Distinguishing features are extremely helpful too: taller Zhu, broad nose or Ping,v. thick hair, John Lennon bangs. Best of all is when a student does something to distinguish herself from the pack, and the more memorable, the better: Tripped over handbag is loads better than Asked about relative clauses.

In one class, I happen to have both a Ricky and a Richard, which on top of the Li problem seems a bit unfair, as does the fact that they are roughly the same height, have thick hair, and for all that they look entirely different, don't wear glasses. The other day, after mixing up their names half a dozen times, I started addressing them as Richard-not-Ricky and Ricky-not-Richard. Then something wonderful happened. As I strolled down the aisle, looking at their work, I tripped over something on the floor. Bending down, I picked up a wallet which was fairly bulging. "Whose is this?" I asked. It belonged to Richard, who paled the minute he saw it in my hand. He opened it briefly, checked that all his cards and money were still there, and let out a long sigh of relief. And no wonder: I'd had a quick peek, and I'm guessing he had enough money to pay his rent for the next three months.

What a lucky break for me, too! I'll never get Richard's name wrong again: on my roll sheet, I've underlined the first four letters of his name.

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21 comments:

Vijaya said...

I've known a LOT of Chinese students and they do pick names that are old-fashioned. I wonder if they are picking out names that sound like their favorite characters out of old books.

I also notice a lot of; Alice, Allen, Adam, A names basically.

Funny about the wallet and how you so deftly tied it up. You've got to be one of my favorite memoirist. Is there something in the works, I wonder ...

Carole said...

Richard was very nice to emmulate his name in such a manner for you. Students aren't often that thoughtful. Great story.

Kim Ayres said...

Better Rich than a Dick, I guess...

Lisa Shafer said...

Funny!
Twenty-three years of teaching and over 3000 students taught leaves me no longer caring whether or not I remember their names every single time. If I get confused, I just glance at the seating chart.

I get a lot of Pacific Islander students with names longer than your arm filled with huge amounts of vowels. I love it when these kids say something like, "Call me Junior, " or "I'm AJ." :)

I understand your name-senility issues well. You have my complete sympathy here.

Travis Erwin said...

Funny. Wonder why they choose older names? Any ideas?

Kit said...

They are clearly cutting edge with name trends. Of the babies and toddlers I know there is a Florence, and an Amelia, also a Maeve, all of which I thought were only suitable for great aunts and great great grandmothers. But they are so out that they're in apparently! Can't say that I know any Lionels though!

Mary Witzl said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lynne said...

I love it. I am so name challenged myself. I swear sometimes I would forget my kids names if I didn't have to say them all the time.

I remember growing up and having my mom go through all our names sometimes a few times before she would stop on our right name. but I guess having 8 kids in 12 1/2 years we have to make some allowances for it...JulieLynneSuzanneBarbaraBillLisaAndrewMegan just like that, but being the second oldest you would think she wouldn't have to go through all the names a couple of time to get to mine.

Anne M Leone said...

LOL! Glad Richard got his wallet back, too!

I once heard a story about a student who was sick of his foreign-sounding name. His parents gave him the choice to call himself anything he wanted (he was 9, I believe). He named himself Charlie Ravioli. Hard to figure. ;)

Anne M Leone said...

BTW (clearly, still thinking about this name thing!), even after four years of not teaching, I still have nightmares about kids going ballistic, or crying, when I mispronounce their name for the tenth time. Names are such a personal thing, it's terrible to get them wrong, but so difficult to get them ALL right.

Charles Gramlich said...

I have given up learning all my students names. I just can't do it. I get to know them after a couple of classes but they have just had to get used to me not knowing.

Mirka Breen said...

You're way ahead, Mary. I have trouble remembering ANY names!

Mary Witzl said...

Lynne -- EIGHT KIDS? Your mother had a right to get addled over your names! My mother only had three of us, but we got used to our names being interchangeable. I only have two of my own kids and an occasional extra daughter; they moan about sharing three names, but I'm betting they'll have the same problem if they ever become mothers.

Anne -- Charlie Ravioli is a great name. I can understand a kid getting tired of having a foreign name. Even if your name is distinctive and personal and all that, it can be a sore affliction when you're young and under the influence of what other people think. Charlie Ravioli might be an odd name, but I'm betting he picked it because he hoped it would be acceptable (or possibly even cool) in the eyes of his classmates.

Charles -- My students get quite peeved when I forget their names. I remind them that they only have one or two teachers, but I have 35 of them. That usually does the trick.

Mirka -- I've always been seriously name challenged, so trying to remember all these names makes me feel a bit like a one-armed juggler. I tell myself I'm doing my grey matter worlds of good -- hope I'm right.

Mirka --

Robin said...

Too funny! Now I wish I was named Goldie.

I feel awful about forgetting people's names. I've had a deep, meaningful conversation with them about private and painful things, and I should damn well remember their names. Yet, I often don't. And they are so nice about it! I can't count all the times moms or kids have said, "Oh - you see so many people. You can't be expected to remember them all!" Yes I can! do you hear that, brain? Hmmmm? Do you?

Marcia said...

Years ago, one of my co-workers in a library was Chinese. Her chosen American name, "Winifred." At least her husband was James.

Mary Witzl said...

Vijaya -- One of my students did pick her name from Little Women, so it's entirely possible that some kids do this. I used to think my Chinese students were picking names that were similar in sound or meaning to their own names. I knew a Lily whose Chinese name was also Lily, and a May whose Chinese name was pronounced May. Whatever the case, I love how unusual the names they pick are, and how old-fashioned they tend to be. I hope they keep them coming. (I'll try to keep my stories coming too. I'm chuffed to have been referred to as a memoirist! :)

Carole -- It was good of him, come to think of it. I've never seen anybody's face go the color his did when he realized I was holding his wallet (and remembered what was in it, presumably).

Kim -- Ha! I hadn't thought of that. Ricky doesn't look even remotely like any Ricky I've ever known, but if I ever get a Dick, I almost hope he's obnoxious.

Lisa -- I've never had any Pacific Islanders, though I have seen a few of their names. If one of them told me to call him Junior, though, I'd make every effort to get his name right. I can't bear having someone think I might not be able to pronounce their name, no matter how badly I'm inclined to butcher it.

In my case, my name problem is actually not senility, it's an innate affliction I've had since kindergarten, when I could never remember my teacher's name or the names of most of the kids in my class. I've always been in awe of people who get names right and never forget them.

Travis -- A Chinese friend once told me that Chinese first names are all carefully chosen and highly individualistic. I think they're going for something similar when they pick their western names: a name that everybody else and his brother won't have. Whatever the case, I like the trend. A class full of Reginalds and Melindas beats a class full of Tiffanys and Tylers.

Mary Witzl said...

Kit -- That is great news. I love the name Maeve and would happily have given it to either of my daughters. (When I tell them that, they practically froth at the mouth, but I'll bet they'd have grown into the name if they had it.) I love the name Lionel so much I've borrowed it for a character of one of my boy books. I hope the real Lionel gets to read about his namesake some day.


Lynne -- EIGHT KIDS? Your mother had a right to get addled over your names! My mother only had three of us, but we got used to our names being interchangeable. I only have two of my own kids and an occasional extra daughter; they moan about sharing three names, but I'm betting they'll have the same problem if they ever become mothers.

Anne -- Charlie Ravioli is a great name. I can understand a kid getting tired of having a foreign name. Even if your name is distinctive and personal and all that, it can be a sore affliction when you're young and under the influence of what other people think. Charlie Ravioli might be an odd name, but I'm betting he picked it because he hoped it would be acceptable (or possibly even cool) in the eyes of his classmates.

Charles -- My students get quite peeved when I forget their names. I remind them that they only have one or two teachers, but I have 35 of them. That usually does the trick.

Mirka -- I've always been seriously name challenged, so trying to remember all these names makes me feel a bit like a one-armed juggler. I tell myself I'm doing my grey matter worlds of good -- hope I'm right.

Robin -- Our memories work the same way: I can remember all sorts of arcane things about people, but not their names. If anyone ever gets offended, I point this out. I'll say, "Okay, you're from Baltimore, you're a short order cook, you like to sky-dive, and you have three Siamese cats, one of whom had a sore paw a few years ago, right?" That usually settles things. (But my brain has a lot to answer for too.)

Marcia -- I'd love to have a Winifred in my class; that would be the only way I could meet one unless something crazy happens and there's a Winifred revival. I don't need any more guys named James, but Horaces and Caspers would be great.

Pat said...

When MTl and I first married the wife of one of his friends was named Hilary and my brain registered it as Heather. No matter how I tried I got it wrong which was not very popular. In the end I resorted to 'dear' - she wasn't the 'darling' type.

Bish Denham said...

I like that they are choosing old fashioned names. They are musical sounding, which may be why they've picked them. Chinese sounds musical to me.

I have a hard time remembering names too, particularly when I meet someone for the first time.

Ruth Kelly said...

New to your blog but I love it. My father was Richard but he went by Dick. He always had a joke hidden somewhere in his mind. Me, I can never remember any jokes let alone names.

Mary Witzl said...

Pat -- I sympathize! I have a student now who will forever be 'Sherrill' to me no matter how many times she assures me her name is Wilma. She has the manner of a Sherrill I once knew and my brain refuses to accept anything else.

Bish -- I love those old names too and applaud their choices. Some kids choose names that are similar to their Chinese names and others go for something totally different. Either way, they all come up with creative choices, and I'm grateful they haven't studied current 'western' name trends: their way is much better.

Ruth -- Thank you for your kind words. We know a handful of Dicks too, and they all take jokes about their name with good humor. You develop a certain thick skin and a grace when your name strikes everybody else as a joke.