BERKELEY — The Berkeley JACL stands with Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen in her recent complaint against Professor Matthew Hubbard of Laney College in Oakland, who asked her to change her Vietnamese birth name because he said it was offensive.
Telling the student that her name “in English sounds like F-ck boy” and that she needs to “understand” that her name is “an offensive sound in my language,” Hubbard said, “If I lived in Vietnam and my name in your language sounded like Eat a D—, I would change it to avoid embarrassment both on my part and on the part of the people who had to say it. I understand you are offended, but you need to understand your name is an offensive sound in my language.”
Hubbard’s actions in requesting Phuc Bui to “anglicize” her name were “unacceptable, insensitive, and racist,” the chapter said. “Every person should feel included and welcome in this beautifully diverse nation, and especially in a city as diverse as Oakland. Our diversity and different intersecting identities should be celebrated, not taunted or changed for the convenience of others.”
The Berkeley JACL’s June 30 letter to Laney College President Tammeil Gilkerson reads as follows:
We were outraged to learn that Laney College math professor Matthew Hubbard asked his Vietnamese American student to “Anglicize” her name because her “name is an offensive sound in my language.” (Emphasis added.)
By characterizing English as his language and Vietnamese as her language he highlighted the perpetual foreigner stereotype Asian Americans continue to struggle against, even in the Bay Area. In making this request, he demonstrated his arrogance and ignorance by asking his student to change her core identity for his convenience. His request and chosen language were discriminatory, disrespectful and insensitive.
This occurrence reminds us of painful examples in our own histories as Japanese Americans. Many of us have family stories about how Japanese names given to American-born children were seen as foreign, hard to pronounce, and somehow un-American. A Berkeley JACL Chapter Board member recalls that her mother, Nobuko, was in elementary school in Southern California when the white teacher told her that her name was too hard to pronounce, so she would call her “Bessie.” Nobuko did not like the name but unfortunately, it stuck.
When someone takes away your name, that person is appropriating your identity, to exercise power over you. Nobuko experienced having her name changed for her. This is just one of many similar stories in the Japanese American community within the greater Asian American narrative.
When we are made to feel we don’t belong because our birth name is considered unpronounceable and “un-American,” it divides people between those who speak the implied “right” or “wrong” language. It also can create feelings of inadequacy and shame for being different. It is especially harmful when this message comes from an authority figure such as a teacher.
Fortunately, Phuc Bui Diem Nguyen stood up for her right to love the name her parents gave her, which means “happiness blessing.” Her sister wrote, “I love that my parents want to keep my culture alive by keeping our Vietnamese name.”
“If you can’t say it, then ask.” It is important to always be a learner when it comes to inclusivity.
We understand that Asian Americans comprise nearly 30 percent of the student body at Laney. With this diversity, we all need to come with an open mind to learn about all parts of our community.
We appreciate Laney College’s prompt action placing Mr. Hubbard on administrative leave and initiating an investigation. We call on Laney College to enact sensitivity training for all staff and take appropriate disciplinary actions against Mr. Hubbard.
Berkeley JACL’s board members are:
Karen Lowhurst and Beth Uno, co-presidents; Tiffany Ikeda, secretary; Marco Torrez, assistant secretary; Mark Fujikawa, treasurer; Tak Shirasawa, assistant treasurer
Directors: Carolyn Adams, Jim Duff, Emily Itoku, Maya Kashima, Vera Kawamura, Ryan Matsuda, Kaz Mori, Estella Nakahara-Hemp, Neal Ouye, Al Satake, Ron Tanaka,
Nancy Ukai, Tara Umemoto, Gordon Yamamoto, Dani Yang, Val Yasukochi
Any updates on this story (particularly the professor)?