During a recent visit to my hometown of St. John's, I went to a busy restaurant to meet friends for lunch. The hostess asked my name. "Bolu," I started. After she refused to take my first name, I began with my last name. "O-g-u-n ..." but was abruptly cut off by the visibly irritated hostess. My name was an inconvenience to her -- too foreign, apparently.
Growing up with a Nigerian name in Newfoundland, it was routine to spell my name after I pronounced it. The hostess wasn't impressed. She asked for another, "easier name" -- someone else in my party, perhaps.
I informed her that the rest of my friends had names that would be of similar difficulty to pronounce; they were of Iranian and Pakistani origin. With this, she grew more irritated. Eventually my fiancée gave a shortened version of her first name to the hostess, which she accepted.
Does "Bolu" seem so hard to pronounce that it doesn't deserve a chance?
This unwillingness to accept an unfamiliar name is extremely at odds with the Canada I know and the warm province of Newfoundland and Labrador in which I grew up. Though the behaviour of the hostess was not blatantly racist nor xenophobic, it was certainly culturally insensitive and wholly inappropriate.
Many individuals with foreign-sounding names do not, and probably should not, expect most Canadians to master the pronunciation or spelling of their names. However, I did expect the hostess to make the effort to attempt my name. Even in a busy restaurant, this would take a matter of seconds. I understand that it can be awkward to mispronounce a name that one isn't comfortable with. However, I felt that to not even try and worse, to cut me off while I was spelling my last name -- the last name of my ancestors; the name my fiancee is soon to proudly adopt -- was insensitive and disheartening.
Though the food was enjoyable, I got up from the lunch table with a sour taste in my mouth. Afterward I asked to speak to the manager -- who was, in fact, the hostess. She explained that the "Canadian culture" she grew up in did not prepare her to pronounce a name such as mine, and suggested that I should go by a pseudonym should I wish to prevent a similar instance in the future.
Does "Bolu" seem so hard to pronounce that it doesn't deserve a chance? (I had already shortened from "Boluwaji")
Should I blame my parents for choosing to give their son a Nigerian name?
Should I deny my ancestry and go by a pseudonym such as "Bob" at this restaurant?
At a later date, the owner of the restaurant called to apologize.
Issues about race, ethnicity and culture have presented themselves in many arenas in Canada -- from the niqab rhetoric in the last federal election to Conservative Party MP Kellie Leitch's proposal to screen immigrants for so-called "anti-Canadian values."
I am proud of my name, which means to wake in the name of the Lord.
There is some evidence that Canadians are not holding on as tightly to multiculturalism as in the past. In a CBC-Angus Reid poll from last fall, 68 per cent of Canadian respondents agreed that minorities should do more to fit in with mainstream Canadian society.
There can be endless debate about just how much residents of Canada should be free to practice their religion, speak in their mother tongue or express other manifestations of their culture, compared with how much they should be expected to assimilate to the mainstream. These issues can be controversial and complicated.
But does this mean that my name -- not a John or Ken or Frank -- is not welcome here? Something that is so personal as a name needs to be changed or amended in order to be more Canadian?
But what's in a name, anyway? Some people are named after a living or deceased family member, while others are given a unique name. Names may have cultural importance and many immigrants choose a name that reflects their ancestry. I am proud of my name, which means to wake in the name of the Lord.
Indeed, a name can say a lot about a person. When the hostess refused to say my name, it said a lot about her. While addressing the Ukrainian-Canadian Congress on October 9, 1971, Pierre Trudeau remarked that "a society which emphasizes uniformity is one which creates intolerance... Canada must continue to cherish human values: compassion, love and understanding."
As our neighbours to the south head into uncharted waters after the inauguration of a president who used division as a campaign tool, I sincerely hope, and indeed believe, that in Canada, tolerance and acceptance will continue to be a shining star of our great nation.
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