This is part 1 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. This book is about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. And you can buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.
Sarah wrote out the names phonetically. She practiced saying them … She was surprised to realize that the names were not that hard to say semi-correctly, albeit in an American accent … She just had not tried before.The Person You Mean to Be, Dolly Chugh, pg 11
A week later, Sarah called Gita. When Gita answered, Sarah asked, “May I speak with Gita Suryanarayanan Varadarajan?” Gita cried. It was the first time anyone had tried to say her name since she had moved to America several years before. “The first time,” Gita emphasizes.
The other day, on a long road trip, my husband introduced me to “A Boy Named Sue.”
(I know. You thought it was Johnny Cash. Me, too. But no one does maniacal sing-yelling like Shel Silverstein, and I’m glad he wrote it. It slots with everything I thought I knew about Shel Silverstein.)
When I first heard this song, I felt immediately seen. Because everyone’s name has a story to it: Your parents named you Mike for your great-grandfather, say. Or you’re called “Tick” because your name is actually Christopher, but your parents called you “Kit,” and when you were little you couldn’t pronounce it, so you introduced yourself as “Tick,” and now it’s what’s on your business card. (This is a true story, by the way. I don’t know where Tick is anymore, but this is one of my favorite name stories.)
Me? My name means “humble.” And I’m named so because when I was born I had flaming red hair, and my grandfather said, “Uh oh, better name her something that’ll temper that red hair,” and so, humble it was.
This is the story I am told, anyway, with great love and joy, by my family members.
My name is complex. Spelled out in Mandarin, it comprises some 34 strokes and three characters, if you include my last name. In English, my parents chose to spell it out in two discrete words, which is why sometimes you’ll see me, on Goodreads or on Twitter or on Facebook, as “Yi.” (This is an annoyance to no end. It’s like Shelby being called “Shel” all the time. Or Allison being called “Al.” It’s fine for close friends. It is not okay for the DMV or a faceless social networking tool, because they don’t know jack about me. Well, they do, but that’s a different post and issue.)
Some people butcher my name. That’s okay. I just correct them and laugh and tell them it will take them a while to get it. I encourage them to keep trying.
But the ones who really rankle are the ones who tell me, straight up to my face, that they’re not even going to try.
Right after my husband’s grandmother’s burial, the pastor came up to me and said, “Now, who are you?” I told him I was married to the eldest grandson, and introduced myself, and then he said, “I’m not even going to try.”
Okay, I was at a cemetery, but I could not stop myself. “You should,” I said, and waited through an uncomfortable silence, and then spelled it for him and pronounced it again, and then waited until he had tried it.
My impatience may have been because of where I was–my husband’s family and I have come to loggerheads several times over political and humanitarian matters–and it might also be because, just the day before the funeral, I was getting a breakfast burrito at an airport kiosk. I put my name in and waited.
The young man behind the counter called my name when my burrito was ready. “Yaeshooon?” he called, tentatively, and then, when I started laughing while coming to collect my burrito, he said, shoulders slumping, “I’m so sorry. Please tell me how to pronounce it.”
In Chugh’s book, she quotes Dale Carnegie: “A person’s name is to him or her the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” But to me, hearing that young man ask me how to pronounce my name was sweeter than my name itself: It told me he was trying to understand where I come from.
Perhaps a person’s name sounds so sweet to them is because it carries with it baggage of identity, of history. I used to say, when introducing myself, “Don’t worry about it. It’ll take you ages. In the meantime, I’ll answer to anything.” I don’t say this anymore, because I have come to realize that my name is tied up in the fight for my identity. That not having people even try to pronounce it is a sign of my struggle as a minority, which I’ve only recently begun to explore. That giving the Starbucks barista “easy” American names like “Sue” or “Melissa” or even my husband’s or my friend’s name so I can avoid seeing my name butchered on a coffee cup is just dodging the truth–that I live here, that I am multi-cultural. That even so, I deserve to take up just as much brain space as Sue, Melissa, Mike, George.
Each year, my father’s high school hosts five or six kids from Taiwan to come visit California. They live with host families over two weeks and are introduced to … erm, American things. They learn about the higher education institutions here and visit a famous aerospace lab. They go to Disneyland and Universal and baseball games too, don’t worry.
These kids, who speak some English, are placed with Caucasian families so they can better their language skills. When my husband and I picked them up at the airport, they introduced themselves to us with their Taiwanese names.
A few hours later, when we met them and their host parents for dinner, they had started using their English names. “Oh, you mean Justin?” said one host parent, blithely, when I asked how her student was settling in. I told her, “That’s not his name.”
She said, “It’s easier for us.”
I said, “You should try. He has a name already. It’s–” and then I proceeded to completely mispronounce Justin’s Taiwanese name.
I don’t think this was necessarily the right place for me to bring this up. Lots of Taiwanese kids have English names. I have cousins who have chosen the names Joanna, Brenda, Brian, Willy, Henry. But the motive, in this case, was way off. “It’s easier for us” is way shittier than “It’s what he wants us to call him.”
I’m not all that interested in your ease, lady. I’m interested in this kid’s sense of identity.
For what it’s worth, I asked Teddy and Justin and Eddie what they’d prefer to be called, and they said their English names were okay, but that they also liked to hear their Taiwanese names. I told them that, in America, it’s okay to be called what you want to be called.
If you haven’t noticed, I can’t remember any of the kids’ Taiwanese names, but I remember their American names perfectly fine. And, when I was repeating them back to them, to make sure I got them right, I Americanized the bejesus out of them. This is because I can’t actually write or read in Mandarin,* so remembering Taiwanese or Mandarin names is rote memorization, using rhythms I don’t know as well, and combinations of letters I don’t usually see. Some might argue that it’s pointless to pronounce someone’s name unless you can do it perfectly. But you know what? Speaking from long experience? It only matters that you try.
Because not even wanting to make the effort sends a pretty clear signal that you don’t believe the word that sums me up–my name–is worth your time.
Think about it. When was the last time a friend of yours did something endearing, or hilarious, or frustrating, and you said to yourself, “Oh, God. That’s so Peter.” Or “That is straight-up Jim.” Or, “That is 100% Borchien.” In this roundabout way, I have come to see people’s names as a personification of who they are, all their bits and bobs and trip-ups and foibles.
In relating the anecdote about Gita and Sarah, above, Chugh relates that Gita told Sarah she believed people don’t try to pronounce foreign names because of arrogance. Sarah, Chugh writes, was horrified. She had never tried to pronounce Gita’s middle and last names because she was afraid of getting it wrong. Now, her friend was telling her her behavior was arrogant, which sent Sarah’s sense of self-identity into the red zone. She had always believed she was a nice person, but here she was, being told she was arrogant.
It’s so important to make our motives clear, but in the end, what matters is how they’re perceived–the feelings you hurt. To write those possibilities off is of highest arrogance, isn’t it? There’s no winner in the name game—at worst, the offender is perceived as arrogant. At best, the person with the unusual name ends up feeling like she has to bend to majority opinion, and she always does it, putting her feelings and her history at a lower value than the majority rule.
You know what? No one’s feelings are worth that. And realizing that, I think, takes true humility.
It’s why the guy from the breakfast place will always be my benchmark. He put his feelings aside, and asked, humbly, to be taught something new. No matter how the rest of my day went, I was always going to remember that someone thought my name–my person–mattered enough to set his own ego aside.
It matters enough that I’ll tell you how to pronounce my name at a grave site. It matters enough that I’ll call you out for your laziness at a social gathering meant to honor you. Why? Because my temporary discomfort, and yours, is nothing compared to being told that the word that embodies a person should be easier for you to pronounce–or never uttered at all.
I asked my parents a few nights ago why they hadn’t given me an American name. “Your pre-school teacher,” my ma said. “Mrs. … Piccone?”
“Uh huh,” I said. “I liked her. She had curly brown hair.”
“I told her your name, and I said if it’s too hard, I can change it.”
“Oh,” I said.
My mother shook her head. “Mrs. Piccone didn’t want that,” she said. “She said, ‘No. I have to learn.'”
My mother would have chosen “Hope” for me, she said, and my father, perhaps already seeing a future comprised entirely of bumps and scrapes and hoping to change my stars, “Grace.”
But for Mrs. Piccone, I may have had an easier time. Maybe I wouldn’t be so neurotic about people’s names, although I have a terrible habit of mixing up friends who come in twos (married couples, best friends, and the like.) But she’s become a part of my history too, and for her, if for nothing else, I’m glad I’m called “Yi Shun.” (Use my business card below to learn how to pronounce it.)
*Taiwanese relies on Mandarin for its written language. So although I can speak it fine, I can’t track new words very well. It’s something I’m working to change.