Tongue in check

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 April, 2007, 12:00am

She can see the irony.

The Chinese background Fiona Swee-Lin Price rejected at school as a way of coping with playground racism led her to set up a flourishing consultancy and write a book to help those teaching and working with Asians.

'I rejected the whole Chinese identity as a child because it was seen as such a bad thing,' says the 34-year-old daughter of an Anglo-Australian father and a Malaysian-Chinese mother. 'I tried to maintain that my middle name was Lin, not Swee-Lin.

'Going to primary school in the 70s in Melbourne, I was the only child with Asian blood. I got all that, 'Go back to your own country', 'ching-chong Chinaman' stuff. You see all that in books, but don't think about it until you experience it. I didn't even want to walk with my mother.'

Then she was sent to a private girls' secondary school and was suddenly one of a group constituting a fifth of the school enrolment, and 'it ceased to be an issue'. When her mother began taking her to a Chinese church, Price was among solely Chinese people for the first time - and it felt right. 'I hadn't thought of myself as Chinese, but I gravitated to them quite quickly,' she says.

Progressing to Melbourne University to study for an arts degree - a shock to her mother's friends, who assumed that, because of her marks, she would become a doctor - Price was thrust unawares into the Anglo-Australian culture of 17-year-olds.

'It was a severe culture shock - all that getting drunk and vomiting. I thought, 'Where is the fun in this?'. I was much more comfortable going for yum cha than going to the pub.'

In the two decades since, Price has studied Putonghua at university, gained a PhD in psychology, and spent six months at Xiamen University in 1994, chosen because the local tongue was Hokkien, her mother's first language. During her time at Xiamen, she also travelled through China and visited Penang (the island where her parents met while her father was a volunteer teaching at Penang Free School in the 60s). There she met her Chinese grandmother, who has since died, for the first time.

Now, Price runs training programmes for those who work with or teach Asians - coaching everyone from university professors to members of the Australian Crime Commission. In an effort to bring what she's learned to a wider audience (and to offer detailed information about a subject too complex to cram into a workshop session), she's published Success With Asian Names. Price hit on the idea for the book after she was appointed head of Melbourne University's cross-cultural training centre. She'd been working at the centre helping international students adjust to life in Australia - but realised that the job involved coaching her staff, too.

To find out what to offer them, she conducted extensive interviews, talking to academics, counsellors and administrative staff, caterers and even maintenance workers, asking what training they needed to help them work with overseas students. The result was a surprise.

Price expected to hear about tough topics such as racism, but found that the most common problem was coping with Asian names. 'I began to realise how important names are in a university, or indeed any big organisation,' she says.

'Every time you have contact with someone by telephone, you have to ring and ask for them by name, which makes things difficult if you can't pronounce it. The same problem applies to anyone who has to call out names, from a doctor's receptionist or flight attendant to a professor reading out names at a graduation ceremony.'

Writing letters or e-mails, or filling in forms with headings such as 'first name' can cause difficulties, says Price. 'You have to open a letter with, 'Dear ...' Which part of the name is appropriate? Should a title be used and if so, how? If you can't tell whether someone is male or female, you can't use Sir and Madam. Most forms in the English-speaking west ask for 'given name' or 'surname'. How do you enter a name that isn't structured that way, or an unofficial western name someone has adopted for convenience?'

Price checked with other cross-cultural training programmes and discovered that none tackled the issue of names. So, she began to research the subject - not only the use of Chinese names, which she knew about, but those from many other countries. In all, 14 Asian languages are covered in the book.

'I found a lot of it links into cultural issues,' she says.

'The Chinese students were happy to have several names and didn't understand why that was a big issue for the Australians. I realised that what you have here is a classic illustration of cultural difference. The Australians were much more individualist, they had this concept that, 'my name is

my identity'.'

Price began running a half-day course to encourage participants to think about naming customs and assumptions tied up with names, with tips on pronunciation, use and structure of names in 10 languages. She then developed a one-day course and began running both at other universities. They were such a hit that she quit her job to set up her own cross-cultural consultancy, running courses all over Australia.

When she submitted her book proposal to Allen & Unwin, it was snapped up for publication within a week.

For Price it was the culmination of a childhood dream - although not quite the one she'd hoped for. 'I've always wanted to be a writer,' she says, 'but a writer of fiction.'

Success with Asian Names by Fiona Swee-Lin Price (Allen & Unwin, HK$210)