On ‘difficult names’

“give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.” ― Warsan Shire

18359108_10106743218512927_1042242656479510728_oMy parents didn’t plan on having me, their sixth and youngest child, but they did choose my name carefully: UyênThi. This name is special for a lot of reasons. For one, the letters in it echo the spellings of my five older siblings’ names. Its abbreviation, út, means baby of the family. Hidden in my name is my mother (turn the symbol on the “e” upside-down and you get a “v,” which is hugging the “en” of my name. Ven: my mother’s name). My dad is reflected in my name as well. He wanted it to be one word, no space: UyênThi, not Uyên Thi. Since Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, this tends to confuse Vietnamese people outside my family. They want to shorten my name and call me Uyên or Thi.

As a teenager, I remember asking my mom if I could change my name to something easier to pronounce. I can’t remember how I explained this request, only that I was anxious about starting at a new school, and I thought having a plain name would perhaps help with the adjustment. After much whining on my part, my mom grudgingly acquiesced. I’m not sure what happened (did I change my mind?), but in the end, I enrolled at the new school as Uyenthi. Luckily, everyone learned how to say my name soon enough. By the end of ninth grade, my classmates would jump in and correct substitute teachers who stumbled over my name during roll call. By junior year, I even had friends who thought it was funny to tell the school receptionist that my name was pronounced Unity. They laughed hysterically when Unity Tran was paged over the school intercom. I laughed too, at the time, but now I think: wait, was the joke on the receptionist, or on me?

Once, during a Vietnamese Student Association meeting in college, another student asked me why I was trying to Americanize my name. I can’t remember how I answered him, but I remember the embarrassment I felt in that moment. I’ll also remember that his name was something completely forgettable, something like Paul Nguyen.

Now, as a professional, I’ve learned to put the phonetic spelling of my name in my email signature. When I meet someone new, I scribble in the phonetic spelling before handing them my business card. I’ve met several people (usually older white men), who chuckle and tell me that I share my name with a football formation, which, to my surprise, amuses me. We share a laugh, and I know they will remember how to say my name.

I don’t expect that people will know how to pronounce my name when we’ve just met, or even if we’ve met a few times. I thank people for asking me how to pronounce it, because I want them to know that it’s okay to ask. Learning someone’s name is one of the first steps in building a relationship. Unique names might be difficult to remember, but it is important to try, and try again. When I make a mistake with someone’s name, I apologize and do my best to do better next time. And when people get my name wrong, I correct them and give grace when they try again. But there is a difference between those who make honest mistakes, and those who say my name wrong and never try to get it right. When that happens, it is difficult to build any kind of meaningful working relationship with them.

I’ve started overly enunciating my name everywhere I go, and giving an explanation of the pronunciation, whether at meetings where most of the people already know me, or in spaces where I am brand new. If you haven’t met me yet, it’s nice to meet you. My name is Uyenthi, wing like a bird’s wing and tee like the letter T, and I use she/her pronouns.

Originally published on the University of Minnesota Campus Climate website. 

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