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

Andrea Y Wang
Published in
6 min readJul 9, 2021


Image courtesy of Kokila, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers

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 small, mostly white town was difficult enough; I was grateful to have a “normal” name. When I moved from rural Ohio to suburban Massachusetts for eighth grade, I was thrilled that there were other Asian Americans attending my school. Finally, I thought, I would belong.

But I didn’t count on the rage that a white girl named Andrea would express when I showed up. No longer the only Andrea in school, she refused to call me by my name. Chan, she called me, my maiden name. She led me to believe that she was my friend, that calling me Chan would differentiate me from her when we were together. Desperate for friendship, I let her. Despite the fact that Chan was my surname, it was difficult to learn to respond to it and to be called that all the time. For an entire year, I felt othered every time she called me Chan. It was a daily reminder that I was a “perpetual foreigner,” that I would never be wholly accepted as an American.

It might seem like a small thing, to give someone a name or nickname that you are confident you can remember and pronounce. But far from a sign of affection, I believe it is a form of violence when the name or nickname is not asked for. Ranjana Srinivasan, PhD, a psychologist and researcher on name-based microaggressions, says, “Ascribing a nickname to a student, or participating in racialized renaming, can be distressing given the individual’s lack of power in choosing how they will be named.” Even being asked questions such as, “Do you have a nickname?” or hearing statements like “I am never going to be able to get this” can be harmful. “These words carried weight for me,” Srinivasan says. “They impacted my sense of belonging within my community and caused me to feel both shame and anger about my South Asian heritage.”

It might seem like a small thing, to give someone a name or nickname that you are confident you can remember and pronounce. But far from a sign of affection, I believe it is a form of violence when the name or nickname is not asked for.

When I was 13, I didn’t have the words to express that feeling, that trauma. But I do now. I wrote The Many Meanings of Meilan, a middle grade novel, to explore the feeling of otherness, of disassociation, which can arise when someone renames you without your consent. In the book, Meilan Hua moves from Boston’s Chinatown, where everyone can pronounce her name, to a small Midwestern town. On her first day in her new school, the principal renames her Melanie because it sounds “more American.” This unwanted renaming causes Meilan to question her identity. “I don’t even know how to be a Melanie. It feels like a distorted version of myself…” she thinks. When she discovers that there are multiple Mandarin homophones of the “lan” character in her name, her sense of self fractures further. In a form of code-switching, she decides that she is the Lan that means “basket” at home, the Lan that means “mist” at school, and the Lan that means “blue” when she’s outside. She behaves differently in each situation, according to the meanings of these names.

When I began writing The Many Meanings of Meilan, a member of my writing group commented, “The principal’s closed-minded comments about Meilan’s name feel like it is from a different decade.” She continued, “I am wondering if such a clueless principal could exist. Of course, in the current environment, anything is possible.”

It was and is, sadly, still possible and still happening. Soon after she made those comments, another writing partner shared a story about her friend and her friend’s young daughter. Attending her daughter’s elementary school art show, the mother noticed that her daughter had signed her drawing “Nora” instead of “Noor.” When asked why, the child said that the art teacher insisted on calling her “Nora.” I found this story incredibly sad. It made me angry, too, that a teacher renamed one of her students to something she found more normative instead of taking the time to remember this child’s real name. Noor is actually easier to pronounce than Nora, with one less syllable.

Not only did that teacher invalidate a young child’s identity, she also severed Noor’s connection to her ethnicity, culture, and heritage. Sometimes the person with the non-European name does the severing themselves, as I did when I told people my middle name was Yvonne. Other times, well-meaning parents do it unintentionally. Young adult author Paula Yoo says, “My parents wanted my Korean first name to be 보라 (‘Bora’) but instead they chose ‘Paula’ because they pronounced Paula as if it rhymed with Bora. So my Korean name is Bora but unofficially, which makes me sad because I wish it were entered into legal record. So this ‘unofficial status’ denies my Korean heritage.”

Correctly pronouncing Asian names has come into the forefront lately, especially after former Senator David Perdue of Georgia repeatedly mispronounced current Vice President Kamala Harris’ name, deliberately weaponizing her name against her. More recently, the L.A. Stage Alliance mispronounced actress Jully Lee’s name when announcing her nomination for the Ovation Awards.

In this era of increased anti-Asian violence, one way to counter the hate is to put in the time and effort to learn how to pronounce Asian names. It shows respect, empathy, and an appreciation for diverse cultures. As for me? I’m learning to embrace my Chinese name. It means “fragrant and graceful.” Said correctly, it’s beautiful.



Andrea Y Wang

Newbery Honor-winning author of books for young people