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Finding Your Identity in the US: What's in a Name?

You know that feeling you get when someone doesn't remember your name? That mix of embarrassment, hurt pride and annoyance as you repeat your name again, and again...and again? It's all too common for an international student in the U.S., as your name is likely to trip up most Americans.

Last week we had a bit of fun at my friend Kate's expense, letting you hear how an American might pronounce (or mispronounce) your name if you studied here. This week our bloggers weigh in on their experiences, and the various ways they've coped with introducing themselves by name in a country where the most common reaction is likely to be, "Can you say that again?"

Jamal Janybek

Actually it's a funny story. So first of all, they misspelled my name in my international passport in that office in my country, where they initiate these sort of documents (I honestly don't know how this office is called). My "real" full name in the passport was supposed to be Jamal Janybek kyzy (2 last words are my last name). But instead, they wrote it as Zhamal Zhanybek kyzy, which sounds absolutely wrong and I hate the spelling, as it seems very odd and weird. Kate can try to pronounce it, if she can. :)

Here you go, Jamal. How'd she do?

And I didn't mention that the name Jamal in other parts of the world is usually a male first name, which is really funny. Cemal (pronounced as "Jemal"), is a very common male name in Muslim countries such as in Turkey, Iran, and others. Moreover, Jamal, as you probably know, is a name commonly given to African-American boys. And almost everybody before meeting me thinks that I am a boy (LOL). So, when I meet somebody, the first question for me is that why I have a male name.

I got used to it by the time I am here in the United States. But still, for me it is just very interesting how people are surprised by finding out foreign names for different genders.

Tara (Tiantian) Cheng
Surprisingly, Americans do a great job in pronouncing my complicated Chinese name, which is Tiantian Cheng. I used to think they would mess my name up into some American-Chinese/ Chinese-American pronounciation, but the truth is most Americans can pronounce my name based on Chinese Pinyin, which is really amazing. Maybe they have gotten used to seeing names from various ethnicities due to the unique formation of America.

But, it is hard for Americans to remember my Chinese name although they pronounce really well. For that sake, I use an English name here in school, work and most other occasions. Ha, I came up with the idea of Tara because I was a big fan of Tara Lipinski, an American Olympic gold medalist for Figure Skating in 1998. Coincidentally, I want to have my English name starting with the letter T which is same as my Chinese first name. So that is it.

Nick (Hau) Hoang
My real name is Hậu Hoàng, but in America I go by Nick. I’m quite glad I adopted “Nick” as my first name, mostly because it is practically impossible for Americans to pronounce my name correctly. It is definitely not an easy task since Vietnamese is a tonal language – you either get the pronunciation right, or not at all. When people try to pronounce my first name, most utter either “ho” or “how.” Of course just to be nice, I would give them some counterfeit compliments even though their effort only result in random Vietnamese words, not the name “Hậu” my grandmother picked, which means “happy ending.”

Adopting “Nick” was not my idea though. It was actually my host mom’s suggestion when I first came to America – she thought an American name would make me adapt quicker. For some reason, I did find the new name helpful. When I heard my classmates calling me “Nick,” somehow I felt as if I had already been a part of the community, rather than some random visiting student from Vietnam. That was four years ago. Now I realize that my identity consists rather of my background, my character, my passions…, not of what people call me by.

Eventually I will go back home, and I will be “Hậu Hoàng” again, perhaps for the rest of my life. But “Nick” will always be like a keepsake to remind me of America, and of all the exciting adventures I had here.

Nareg Seferian
I guess my name and surname aren't all that difficult to pronounce for Americans, certainly not as difficult as that of some other Armenians. It is unusual, though, so people tend to halter over it. More often than not, at least at college, I've had people ask me to clarify how I'd like my name to be pronounced or I've received apologies for "butchering" my name. The truth is, I've always lived in places where my name has been unusual, so, apart from extreme cases, I really don't mind having my name intoned a certain way or be given an accent which is not the way it would work in the Armenian.

That's at college, however, where faculty, staff, and friends see me and talk to me on a regular basis. In "the outside world", there can be interesting scenarios such as coming up with a convenient, alternative, very American name for use in coffee shops, say, or at restaurants. I go by "Joe" myself: short, simple, and it matches the coffee motif too. But that can also lead to some slight trouble. I went skiing one time recently and had to rent the equipment. When the attendant asked for my name, I automatically went with "Joe", but then I forgot that she was holding the form I'd filled out with my real name on it. It was a little embarrassing. I hope she didn't feel like she was being tricked.

Sebastian Sanchez
So, my name is Sebastian, well, actually Sebastián, but you don't write accents in English. Lucky for me it's a common name so people are already used to it and it doesn't have a very different pronunciation...even though it was kind of funny for me when I got here since that slight difference can be a little annoying at first. Other really common Latin names are harder to pronounce for English speakers, like Raúl or Roberto since it is hard for Americans to "roll" their r's. A funny example of what I'm saying can be gotten by going to Google Translate and typing some names to translate them from the native language to English (i.e Spanish to English) and then hear it in both languages.

But those who really win the prize of mispronounced names are East Asians. I have two good friends who I met by their "American" names, but as I got to know them I managed to learn their names. The first one is from Indonesia and his name is TzeChuen Lee (a.k.a: Mac) the second from China, Kanjicai Dong (a.k.a: Broc). But well, I guess different cultures have a hard time pronouncing different names, after all, I had the same trouble at the beginning with Tecuh... with Mac.

Farima Afaq
When I first came to the US, I was admitted to Burlington High School. The first day of school, I was introduced to all of my teachers. I remember meeting my English teacher whose name I don’t have in mind. She asked my full name, and I responded, “Farima Afaq.” She tried pronouncing it, but not correctly. She told me that the students might tease me, because my last name sounds like an English swear word (f**k). That was when I learned that Americans can’t pronounce my last name correctly.

Sometimes it is also the meaning of the names that might be funny in a different language. Two years ago, I had a friend whose name had a really funny meaning in my language, Dari. His name was Kadu which means squash. So, whenever someone called him, he reminded me of the days that my mom made squash at home, and it made me smile.