Okay, what is wrong with people?
My name is simple. It’s only two syllables both of which are used easily in everyday conversation, so why do Americans have such an issue pronouncing my name. I even use an anglicized pronunciation of my name, I have since I was a child.
My name is Naamen. Traditionally it should be spelled NeAmen but on my birth certificate and in everyday life it’s spelled Naamen. Traditionally with either spelling it should be pronounced “Na-ah-men” (side note: my Hawaiian friends and acquaintances consistently pronounce it the correct way and spell it Na’amen, whcih I’m fine with). As it is I don’t even ask for that, only my father’s side of the family uses the correct pronunciation. For most folks it’s “Nah-men” and I think we can all agree this is not a “hard” name to pronounce or remember. But ever since I can remember people have been re-naming me and I’ve allowed it.
I’ve been called Norman, more times than I can count. I’ve also been called Naw-man, Nay-man, Day-men, De-ah-men, and the list goes on. I used to hate my name, to blame it for me not fitting in, for being different. When I played games with childhood friends I insisted on being called Alex or Adam. Even in high-school and my first few years of college whenever a teacher asked if there was a namewe preferred to be called I always instituted a nickname of Adam or Alex. When I dreamed of being a huge science-fiction writer I knew what pseudonym I would use, Saturn Walker, because I hated my name so much (although I actualy do use a pseudonym when submitting fiction it’s no longer because I hate my name).
None of these things ever stuck I was still Norman, Nay-man, Nay-men, etc. Maybe it was because I wasn’t so stringent in enforcing my nicknames or maybe it was because I didn’t do it as completely as possible, still allowing old friends to call me by my real name etc. Whatever it was I’m glad now that I didn’t allow the ignorance of people to rename me.
I’ve known so many folks who like me are first generation, their parents being immigrants, who never go by their birth name. They have an “American Name” that often has absolutely no connection to their actual birth name. Example, one of my best friends in middle-school who everyone knew as Sue, well her real name was Thuy. It was all over, a lot of my friends in high school and college were called Vincent, Phoebe, Alice, Jeanie, Linda, Chris, Pamela, Jennifer, Esther but their real names were nothing similar to those – their real names were from China and Taiwan, Japan and Nigeria, Ghana and Vietnam, Iran and Ethiopia, Guatemala and UAE. They or their parents had decided that those names were secret, hidden, only to be used among friends and family.
I know so many of these folks who are now angry and trying to reclaim their name, have people stop calling them by their “American Name”.
The history of re-naming people who are different and especially POC is dark and ominous in America. We know what happened to all those Africans who lost their names, and fought to keep some of their culture alive. So why have been so ready to give up our names for something more “All-American”?
I’ve actually had folks say “I’m just gonna call you _____” which when I was younger I agreed to, this gave me a large smattering of nicknames in high school all connected to some mangling of my name but nowadays I simply say “Actually I would prefer to keep my birth name if it’s all the same to you.” If any one of us had trouble pronouncing David or Solomon, would there be the audacity to ask to call them something else? No. Because they’re names are normative and ours are “weird” or “foreign”. So we give up our identity or names to be more like everyone else. (I could get into the theft of “foreign” names for Fantasy novels and such and they way everything should be exotic and magical and the way that ties into this but that’s a separate post altogether)
One of the reasons we do this is because all too often Americans act like they can’t pronounce our names. Often it’s not a conscious act, they’ve been told that all those foreign names are incomprehensible so why even try, right? The saddest part of this act is that for most it’s unconscious and that those of us with names outside the norm buy into it too. And so when we tell them our names and they lean forward with that “huh?” and small smile inviting us to share in the joke of our own name, we smile back because we’ve been taught that yes our names are funny. We’re taught that our names are so different, so foreign with both of these being understood to mean “bad”, “strange”, “not one of us”.
We often don’t stop to think about if on a simple linguistic level our names really are that hard. Most often it’s not that they can’t pronounce two, three or four simple syllables. It’s that societally they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge our lives and choices. We are a conscious reminder of change, of immigration and “the others” who are becoming more and more populous. Renaming us is a way to makes us less threatening, to change our identity and rob us of some agency by naming us as if we were a pet.
My own personal experiences bear this out if only because people who want to be friendly with me, new co-workers or friends of friends have very little trouble pronouncing my name. They may forget my name later, but that’s a completely different thing. Compare that to the security lady at my office building who has asked for my name over 5 times and still can not get it.
Another huge reason we change our names or allow them to be changed is because of the way that “foreign” sounding names can count against us (I think with this reason it’s more often parents who create an “American Name” or change the family name to better fit in with American society) . Having a name that is so obviously not American can work against us in numerous ways in our everyday life. A 2003 study saw that names that sounded white were 50% more likely to get a callback than names that sounded stereotypically African-American. Now in this day and age of immigration reform and a much more insular America having a name that marks you as not American affects your life every single day from people. trying to change it, to people making fun of you for it, to people assuming that you must be an illegal (which can land you in a detention center for months whether true or not).
That’s really the least of it, our name is our mark on the world, it’s a huge part of our identity to see it so easily tossed aside, mangled or chalked up as a negative is simply hurtful.
This is not to say that you may not mis-pronounce anyone’s name in your life. I do it too, except I try to never do it more than once. I repeat the name to myself or write it down or a million other methods used to remember things. So yes, there are some names that you might find are actually hard to pronounce and you might need some coaching to get through the first couple of times but re-naming someone…well this ain’t the south and my name ain’t Toby.