Pronouncing Names RIGHT, Not “White”

I wrote the following excerpts in Fall 2011 as part of two blog posts for Generasian, an Asian American interest then-blog-and-publication (now multimedia platform) at New York University.

My American name is Alice Ann Tsui, and the only thing about my name that makes it “Asian” is my last name. My Chinese name is 徐晓兰 (Xu Xiao Lan in Pinyin) – which, at one point in time, Google Translate interpreted as “Dawn of the Orchid.” That translation sounds quite epic, but does an exotic meaning exist behind every Asian name?

In an 8asians article contemplating this question, Koji Steven writes:

When [people] ask what [my son’s name] means, they want to hear something more fortune cookie. Something like, “Wind blows down the north face of Mount Fuji.” I have no idea what the heck that means but it sounds pretty darn exotic doesn’t it?

I have come across this experience myself quite a few times. Questions such as “what does your Chinese name mean” often imply that the inquiring person expects a unique meaning dissimilar to any possible story of the Western name. However, Steven continues:

I wonder if people with more traditional Western names are asked what their names mean. I’ve never wondered what John meant or what Lisa means…

According to this site, John means “God is gracious.” And Lisa… means “God’s promise.” Maybe because the names are so common, I’m surprised to find out that they have such deep meanings. I wonder if Johns and Lisas know.

My parents never explained my Chinese name to me as “Dawn of the Orchid.” To this day, the actual meaning of my Chinese name is quite lost in translation and I only know that my mother and I share the same character of “orchid.” As for my American first name, I have never gotten any further explanation than hearing from my parents that they liked the name Alice because they thought it was “nice sounding.” My middle name Ann was given to me as a suggestion from a nurse present at my birth.

Using the same site Steven used, Alice means “noble,” and Ann means “He (God) has favored me.” I am quite sure my parents do not know that the combination of Alice Ann has this prescribed meaning, just as I do not understand my own Chinese name.

While the etymology of names in English may reveal more than what is apparent to the naked eye, the same goes for names in Asian languages and, in fact, names in all languages worldwide. Common names simply get a bypass on the question, although the truth is that each and every name is unique. Every name has a unique story behind it, and while etymology may be fun to research, we define what our names mean through our life stories. It’s not “West versus East,” but rather “Common versus Uncommon,” respectively. (Tsui, The ‘Exotic’ Asian Name)


When I was in elementary school, I had a very diverse class setting but Asians were still the minority. While I consider my elementary school experience as a happy and great one, there were moments of bullying that I will never forget. My first instance I remember was when non-Asian students would ask me how to pronounce my last name: Tsui. I would phonetically say it slowly: “TSOY, like the t and the s are blended together.” But that response was merely followed by remarks including:

Soy? Like soy sauce?!

Tee-soy? Haha!

Suey… suey suey suey!

Tissue!

(Tsui, Asian Kids are the Most Bullied)


The excerpts I have included continue to resonate with me deeply today, 8 years after I have originally written them. I was reminded of these experiences by Hasan Minhaj, the political comedian and host of Patriot Act, in his recent videos discussing his experiences with pronunciations of his name. Most notably to me, Minhaj recounts a time when he was auditioning and his name was mispronounced – and he himself reiterated that it did not matter.

Within the first minute of another video, Desi-American kids and Hasan Minhaj start off by naming how their name is actually pronounced, but then pronounce it the “White” way.

Why are names still being mispronounced and colonized (also read as: appropriated) today?

Why is there a “White” way to pronounce names with roots in non-English languages? 

As an educator, I have seen and heard other educators mispronounce butcher and Whiten names for convenience sake. What is “convenient” for the educator is inflicting harm on a child’s identity. Too often, we have learned that as long as we try our best to say it, that’s all we can do. NO! We MUST do better and get it right – right not in the way of how we may know to pronounce it from a prior experience teaching a student with the same name, but right in the way that we are saying a specific child’s name exactly the way the specific child wants us to say their name.

In fact, let’s forget the educator perspective for a moment. What is “convenient” for another person to say, is HURTFUL to the person whose name it is. Equally if not more  appalling is when I hear people anglicize names – such as from “Juan” to “John”, or when my mom was given an “American” (read: White) name (that by the way sounded NOTHING like her Chinese name) because her Chinese name was “too hard” for her coworkers to pronounce correctly.

My name DOES matter, and who I am, does matter. (Minhaj, 2019).

My parents chose my name “Alice” not because of its meaning in the baby book dictionaries (I doubt they even looked in those), but rather because it was “easy to pronounce”. Somehow, prior to my birth, my parents already internalized the idea that having a non-English first name would make my life more difficult, or perhaps even their lives more difficult as non-native English speakers. This “easier” first name seemed to be defeated, however, by my “impossible-to-pronounce” last name.

Since I had a last name that was “difficult to pronounce” for most English-speakers, I started to believe that the accurate pronunciation (by my account) of my last name was insignificant. It took a long time for me to become somewhat comfortable with correcting people with how to pronounce my name, and to this day I still sometimes give up after 2 or 3 tries and the other person does not say it properly. These messages of my name having exotic (read: interesting for the story, not for the actual transliteration or pronunciation of the name itself) meanings while simultaneously being unpronounceable were communicated to me as a kid, and people with exoticized and/or mispronounced names should not feel the need to shed their cultural skin for a more colonized one. There is NO such thing as a name that is too difficult to pronounce. There is NO such thing as a name that does not matter.

My name matters. As I wrote 8 years ago,

we define what our names mean through our life stories (Tsui, 2011).

Tell your life story with how YOU want your name pronounced.

Take the time to make sure another person’s name matters as well. 

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