All throughout school, I always knew when the substitute teacher arrived at my name based on a pause and a somewhat sheepish look on their face. Once in a while, the teacher would ask me how to correctly pronounce my name. Most of the time, though, they’d give it a half-hearted attempt and move on, not bothering to learn how to say it as long as I was present to say “here,” even though I always made it a point to politely but adamantly demonstrate the pronunciation. They were, after all, substitutes. Why would they need to learn my name, if they were never going to see me again?
Yet, a name is the basis of identity. It is significant because of the history it conveys, even beyond just a personal scale. In the case of “ethnic-sounding names,” by taking neither the effort nor the care to learn a name’s pronunciation, one inadvertently dismisses all the culture behind the name, and therefore the person it embodies, altogether. It’s a subtle sign of apathy, a small way of saying “I don’t really care” or “I don’t have time for this.” A small act of neglect indeed, but one with resounding effects.
For many people with hard-to-pronounce “foreign” names, one common alternative used to bypass all the headache and struggle of correcting others is to adopt a more palatable American name. It’s a personal choice in which the “right decision” is different for everyone. In my case, I never intend to take on an American name, even if it would mean solving a plethora of complications in one fell swoop.
My name is something my parents gave me to pass on their hopes, their aspirations, a little piece of them that they bestowed upon me. The meaning of my name, “Siyang,” or “思扬,” is multifaceted. The first character can mean “thinking of” and the second is a shortened version of the Chinese city, “Yangzhou.” This is because Yangzhou is where my parents first met, and therefore those two characters always draw back to that time and place where the paths of their lives first crossed. My name is a tribute to the tenacity and beauty of their love. In addition, “yang” means to rise, to fly — a kind of lightness and happiness they hope for me. There is too much meaning carried in those two syllables of my very Chinese name for me to ever let it go. I am my name.
Of course, not all who pronounce my name incorrectly do so out of any malice. In fact, most of the time, it’s simply because we’ve met so few times that they’ve forgotten exactly how to say it, or maybe even forgotten my name entirely. We’re all human. Who hasn’t had that awkward encounter where someone you sort-of-kind-of know says hello and addresses you personally, but all you can do is wave back and smile embarrassedly because you can’t remember their name? It happens to all of us!
Commendably, the University has recognized the significance of names and their pronunciations by introducing the service NameCoach, in which students can record the pronunciation of their names. Unfortunately, as of now those recordings are only available to advisors, instructors, and administrative staff. So, to everyone else, I can only say one thing: if you don’t know how to say my name, just ask! I would be more than happy to repeat it for you. It doesn’t matter if it’s already been months or you fear that at this point it’s way too awkward to let it show that you never learned my name. I promise, I’m not going to judge you. On the contrary, I respect the fact that you took the effort to recognize my name the way I’d like it pronounced, the way that unleashes its full potential, all the love and life behind it.
Siyang Liu is a first-year student from Princeton, NJ. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: This month, the University observes Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. If you would like contribute to this month-long conversation about Asian-American and Pacific-American culture, please email email@example.com.