Protecting Cultural References, and Correct Name Pronunciations

On Cloud Nine
4 min readAug 9, 2021

I have a workshop called Fairy Tales from the East, and it’s about bringing out your cultural references to the world. It starts with simple exercise:

(1) Secretly choose an animal, (2) Introduce it to a partner in your own language. (3) Let your partner repeat the word and the gesture. For instance, I’d say “kucing” (“cat” in Indonesian/Malay). It might get repeated as “kewchang”. (4) Now let your partner say what they think that animal is. They might correctly think it’s a cat. But maybe a lion, or incorrectly a bird. They can get it wrong. It’s fun.

Here’s the interesting part. This is where you create a shared reference. You can both agree that in this world, “kewchang=bird”. We are trained as improvisers to agree and build together a dictionary on the fly, for a fleeting scene that will never return. This is the idea of Yes-And.

This is the principle of improv. Mistakes are gifts, right?

On the other hand…

This was the first time I have ever heard the Indonesian word “kucing” in an improv setting, and it gave me pride. Unexpected pride. It turns out, I do like having the word kucing in an improv scene. I’ve heard cats being cats (EN), katt (NO), gato (ES), chat (FR).. but never kucing. Suddenly I felt represented.

Sometimes I DO want people want to be correct, and not just rounded off to the nearest reference. As funny as the corrupted version kewchang is, maybe this time I do want to hear correct kucing. This may be my only chance.

This is even more true when it’s something uniquely your culture. What about endemic animals to Indonesia, like Komodo, Anoa, Babirusa, Badak? If they could get blurred into something else, they will never get heard. Sometimes, we want to keep our cultural identity as a sharp image and not get blurred. Like these endangered animals, these are endangered references in an improv setting, and we have to protect them — even at the expense of Yes And.

Right of Way

So this sounds like it gets tricky.

What I think, is in Indonesian called voorrang (ironically a Dutch word, meaning right-of-way). It’s like in traffic, you have an order who should yield. In improv, Yes-And should yield to cultural identity first. It means if you’re the one who speaks Indonesian, YOU have the right of way. YOU get to choose FIRST whether you want kucing and kewchang.

Again, all this sounds counterintuitive to the spirit of building something together. But what it means, practically, is if you are the dominant culture, you should give an extra pause and give them a right of way.

Vice versa, if you are the minority culture, you have the facility to stand up and represent your culture. Even if your partner has established kewchang you have the right to say “nope, it’s not kewchang, it’s kucing.” It’s a necessary block to protect your endangered culture. While an adage in improv is you have to let go of your ideas, culture is one thing you should not be forced to abandon (unless you choose to).

Ideas, we have to let go.

Culture, we don’t have to let go.

Play freely, Say My Name

This might sometimes lead to the feeling that we have to be super careful and walking on egg shells. It’s not.

All I am proposing is that little right of way, and removing any defensiveness to be corrected. But one should still be able to play within someone else’s culture. Balance.

Name is an example of culture which swung from ignorance to the extreme opposite (egg-shelly). In the old days people don’t give a damn if they say Aree correctly. These days some people are absolutely scared of mispronouncing my name, that they don’t say it. Likewise when they see names which are unfamiliar to them like my friends Ganchanok Junsiri (Thai name) or Ulugbek Bekmukhamedovs (Uzbeki name), they totally clam up and say “I don’t even want to try saying that”.

Now I cannot speak for everyone. I would like to see you try. You might get corrected, because I have the right of way of my name, but you are trying to learn. “I won’t even try that” emphasizes that not making mistakes is more important than learning.

Here’s how I like you to treat my name:

  • BAD: “Your name is difficult, can I just call you Artie?” (Washing off my culture)
  • AVERAGE: “I won’t even try saying that.” (Fear is holding back your learning)
  • GOOD: “Is that ‘Aree’? Am I pronouncing it right?”
  • BEST: *Making proper research and experience so that you can pronounce all Aree’s correctly*

Respecting one’s culture is not avoiding making a mistake. It’s educating yourself, so you become more learned in that culture. That’s how we both win.



On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.