These last few days I’ve been home sick which is my least favorite reason to be home. This time I’m “normal person” sick; an annoying little cold (or as I like to call it, baby elephant syndrome because that’s what it makes me sound like) has taken over my body leaving me runny, sneezy and achy. I’ve decided that those of us who are chronically ill should be exempt from colds, flus and viruses considering we’re already sick every single day. That seems fair, doesn’t it? Let’s start a petition!
As it were, being home alone, sick and unable to go to work has allowed me a great deal of thinking time. Over the weekend, before I became unwell, I heard someone talking about an author from Germany, and they couldn’t pronounce the author’s last name. The person compensated for this by saying, “erjelrkerlekrelw, I’m not even going to try to say that last name.” Everyone else laughed. I began to fume, and I have been fuming and ruminating since.
A while back I made the life changing decision to rename myself (click here to read about that after!) There were a million reasons that I decided to give up my birth name, but not a single one of those had anything to do with my name being extremely challenging for people here in America to say. While I do admit it is nice that I no longer have to explain my name, repeat it a hundred times before people understand the pronunciation, or have people grill me incessantly about where I come from, it wasn’t entirely easy for me to release one of my last obvious connections to my culture. However, my name became a trigger and a reminder of the abuse I suffered through, and being released of that after 25 years feels like a blessing.
Before I ever had a choice, my family shortened my birth name to half its length for the sake of it being easier on themselves and others. Even still, strangers struggled with it. As I grew, the struggles came more frequently and my frustrations grew. Amongst all the Jennys, Johns, Erics and Sarahs, to strangers my name basically looked like it was born from a puppy falling asleep on a keyboard and smashing random keys. The constant giggles and not so silent judgments from others as my name was butchered thousands of times made me feel like a carnival freak. It was so bad that at my high school graduation after phonetically writing my name out on a card, the two girls reading the names off didn’t even try to say my name and decided to start laughing instead, and as I walked the stage, not a single person cheered because no one knew it was me.
Having an ethnic name should not be seen as a negative in America, and yet, it is. If your name is too hard to pronounce, we’re either made fun of, judged, or worst of all, people try to erase our ethnicity to make it easier on themselves. Over and over people asked me, “Can I just call you (insert whitewashed version of my name here)?” to which I’d always reply, “fuck no” (Well, maybe slightly more polite than that).
It is absurd and insulting that many people don’t even try to pronounce ethnic names. They get flustered because the fact that they are ignorant of our name pronunciation makes them nervous and feel less intelligent than they pride themselves on being. But Americanizing our names in attempt to save their ego from being hurt is one of the worst possible solutions. To us it says, “your culture is not as important as my own, so I don’t have to learn about it. I’ll just adjust it to be more like what I already know rather than stepping out of my comfort zone and trying out something new.” That’s a pretty fucked up message to send someone, don’t you think?
As a child I begged my mother to legally change my name. But again, it was not because of its difficult pronunciation. It was because of what my family associated it with. However, there are many others who have wanted to change their names purely because of the fact that it too different. Take the actress Uzo Aduba for example. Her full first name is Uzoamaka, a beautiful Nigerian name. In this video, she explains her struggle with her name as a child. At one point, she wanted to be called “Zoe.” She asked her mother if that was okay, and her mother asked why she wanted the change. Uzo said it was hard for others to pronounce Uzoamaka. Her mother bluntly replies that others can learn to say it, and I don’t think she could have possibly been more right.
America prides itself on being a diverse country, and it certainly is. But colorblindness, whitewashing and culture stripping are not the same as diversity. Diversity literally means, according the the almighty internet, “the state of being diverse; variety.” How exactly can we have variety when others strip minorities of their cultures or demand assimilation?
While those with ethnic names may have different preferences as to how others go about learning their names, for me personally, the minor annoyance of repeating my name several billion times to get someone to say it correctly is still preferred over someone simply dumbing it down and giving me a generic nickname that means nothing to me. And as Uzo’s mother said, people are capable of learning to pronounce any name, if they are willing.
A person’s name is a part of who they are, and many times the meaning of that name is dear to them. Minimizing all of that feels like ripping out a chunk of their heart (at least, it always did to me). If you’re wondering why I chose a French/Greek name when I changed my name and not one of my own culture, I had several reasons for this:
- The name meaning for me was overall more important than what language it originated from.
- Eleanore specifically has always been one of my very favorite names. I would have named my child Eleanore if I was capable of having children, but since I am not and may never get the chance to name a child, I decided to give it to myself.
- I felt that my personality and style fit the name, and though I tested out a range of others, Eleanore felt like home. This fact was affirmed to those close to me, which felt entirely fabulous.
You don’t have to like a person’s name. But you do have to give an honest effort to pronounce it as it should be pronounced to respect them. Fearing the prospect of saying it wrong is not an excuse to insult someone by thinking their name isn’t worth your time to learn. We don’t get more intelligent by running away from what we don’t understand. By taking the time to learn about others who are not identical to us, we can actually go beyond the facade of diversity we live in, which quickly falls away when tested. People shouldn’t be laughing off names they can’t pronounce, they should be taking the two minutes required to learn how to do it. For fuck’s sake, we have the entire internet in our pockets. There is literally no excuse for minimizing or changing someone’s name. Especially because, you know, you could just ASK THEM!
For all the Jennys, Johns, Erics and Sarahs, there are also Xiomaras, Mahandras, Chidikes and Yanniks. All of our names are beautiful and important, and every single person deserves to have pride in their name without reservation or judgement from those around them.
I’m slowly teaching myself that while I’m still getting used to my new name, when I’m around those of my own culture, it doesn’t make me any less ethnic that I no longer carry my birth name. It simply adds more to who I am as a whole, which has always been eclectic. I’m a half Egyptian, half Austrian who grew up in a Mexican and Vietnamese neighborhood, in a home that seemed to be a portal to Vienna, while we practiced our Muslim religion and celebrated our grandmother’s Catholic one.
I cannot stress enough how grateful I am that all of this has influenced who I am as a person. If anything, my lovely new name is the sparkling bow that ties me together. My name used to make me cringe, flood me with pain, and felt completely detached from me. Now my name feels like it represents the person I’ve worked so hard to become and sounds like twinkling stars when I’m called by it. I couldn’t be more pleased.
Instead of sharing a song as I usually do, I’d like to share this video entitled Facundo the Great. Created by Ramon Sanchez and the people at Upworthy, it tells one account of how teachers used to Americanize the names of Mexican-American children to make them more “normal.” Click here to watch!