It’s Time to Pronounce Asian Names Correctly
I wrote ‘The Many Meanings of Meilan’ to explore the feeling of otherness when someone renames you without your consent
Confession: I have never liked my Chinese name. My father transliterated it from the Chinese 郁如 to Yu-Ju. But whenever anyone tries to say it, they always pronounce it “yoo-joo.” In actuality, it is pronounced closer to “yü-roo” (yù rú in Hanyu Pinyin), which also trips up people.
For most of my life, I have avoided writing my Chinese name or telling people what it is. Yvette, I would say when people asked, or Yvonne, or Yolanda. And once, memorably, I said the “Y” stood for Yuri and I was a Russian spy (I am not). Nobody ever questioned me (except for that last one). Nobody ever had a difficult time pronouncing those “Y” names. The fact that these names originated in France, Greece, and Russia — all European countries — is not lost on me. Western names are considered normal, while non-Western names are considered difficult or inconvenient, even if they are simple, single-syllable names.
Jung Kim, PhD, associate professor at Lewis University, says that people often mispronounced her name as “Young,” “Joong,” or “Zhung.” “I hated how my name was butchered,” she says. “So much I almost changed my name to Christina or Jessica in sixth grade.” And children’s book author Debbi Michiko Florence recounts, “My (maiden) last name is Hirokane. Japanese is fairly easy — the vowel sounds never change and you sound it out. Hee-row-kah-neh. But all childhood I was ‘Hurricane.’ Both as a teasing nickname and as a mispronunciation. I couldn’t wait to get married and change my last name — I vowed to marry a Smith or a Lee.”
Changing one’s name is a common reaction to the exhaustion induced by constantly hearing your name mispronounced or having to correct people. In a recent episode of NPR’s podcast Code Switch, author Luvvie Ajayi Jones adopted a Western name not because she was ashamed of her Nigerian name, but “to protect it from other people making it ugly.”
My parents made my Chinese name my middle name; my given name is Andrea (ANN-dree-ah). I had an easier time, perhaps, than Asian American kids whose parents did not give them an American name. Growing up in a…