News from the Nicest Racist Country in the World

My name is Howard Jonathan Goldenberg.
It might just as well be Howard Jonathan Foreign. Or Howard Different.

I write good serious letters, grown up, sensible letters, doctor to doctor letters. From time to time I receive a response addressed as follows:

Dear Dr Goldberg,

Now my name is Goldenberg. We Goldenbergs are fewer than common or garden Goldbergs, distinct from them, superior to them by one syllable.

Less often my correspondent replies:

Dear Dr Rosenberg,

Occasionally I have been

Dear Dr Goldstein,

and on one occasion, I found myself elevated to the Shakespearean catalogue:

Dear Dr Rosenkrantz.

Like all good Australian children I grew up with the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears.
Three syllables: Gold-i-locks. No school child pronounces or reads this differently. It is as simple as Gold-en-berg – three syllables.

In this nice country (which I love) the Smiths have been eclipsed by the Nguyens as the bearers of the commonest name in the telephone directory. Almost everyone in Australia consults a Doctor Nguyen or sits open-mouthed before Dentist Nguyen, or is assisted at the checkout by Schoolgirl Nguyen, or copies the homework of Swot Nguyen; we all know a Nguyen. But how many of us can pronounce the name? How many of can spell it correctly?

In this country (in which my generations have lived happily since the 1840’s) we occupy an entire continent yet we share no border with another language. (There are internal borders of course, unseen, that delineate tribal lands and tongues. We never mispronounce the names of those languages; we do not know them. Blackfellas have learned not to make us settlers uncomfortable.)

The Australian ear, the Australian mind, attuned to English, recognize the present hegemony of that language. We have a monoglot sense of normality. English is natural, familiar, comforting. We Nguyens and Goldenbergs, in all our sweet immigrant innocence, offend that ear, strain that throat, challenge that comfort.

So we come here, we land, we try to lose our foreignness.
We try to fit in. The Chinese girl whose name in Mandarin means Blushing Lotus buries Sao Li under Sally. She senses our discomfort, she knows her own, and she submerges self, cultural memory, pride, her parents’ choice of name, born of their prophetic knowing, expressive of connection, of parents owning their own. Sally gives birth to herself and Sao Li dies.

I have a close relative by marriage whose name is decidedly unenglish and hence rather unaustralian. Further, in the original German the name means “Bad Luck.” Most of the Badluck Clan have changed their name to Goodluck and have prospered here and become proverbial in the landscape. But my relative persists as Harry Badluck. He refuses to change. “It was my father’s name and that’s good enough for me.” In Europe the name was prophetic: it was good enough for Harry’s father to see the Nazis kill many of his family.
Harry Badluck sticks to his patrimony. He is proud of it.

Australia is the nicest racist country in the world. Ask Adam Goodes.
We Australians don’t wish to be racist. We don’t like to think of ourselves that way when we intend the opposite.
We are, unfortunately, linguistically provincial. We cover our confusion, our small discomforts, our unspoken resentments, in insensitivity or laziness or in unkind humour. (Come on Sally! Lighten up! Can’t you take a joke?)

My name is Goldenberg.

2 thoughts on “News from the Nicest Racist Country in the World

  1. That sure made me laugh, Howard. There is a serious side to it though, that of linguistic imperialism. Where-ever the colonisers went they imposed there language together with everything else, in part because they were too stupid to learn anything new. Ross still calls Lima [laima]. I once read a really great book about this issue as part of my linguistics studies. The author is French. If you are interested I’ll dig it out when I am back in Melbourne. PS I am sure grateful I am not called Pech. Cheers,

    Susanne

    mobile phone while in Peru: +51 982 768 634 Please don’t send my messages back when you reply. Trim them off. Our internet access is very limited. Pictures eat up heaps of bytes.

    ______________________________________ Dr Susanne Dopke Consultant in Bilingualism Speech Pathologist

    website:

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