How do you pronounce your name again? Again?
At King Elementary School’s fifth-grade graduation, Ms. Shah paused before she read the name of the last student. She confessed, “I’ve been practicing this all day. The kids have been helping me.” Then she proudly announced the name of a Chinese American girl with a particularly tricky surname, Xu, her face contorting with the effort of getting that \ü\ just right. Then she raised both arms triumphantly as the audience applauded.
She was actually pretty close. Not 100 percent, but not bad. This teacher gets great kudos for trying. Most people do not even try.
My surname is spelled “Wang,” but it is pronounced \wong\. When I was little, some people would get mad and scold that I was the one who was spelling or pronouncing my own name wrong. (Or “Wong.” Ha ha. Not funny.) The “a” in Wang is pronounced like “wander” or “want” or “wand.” Similarly, Zhang and Chang should both be pronounced something like \jhong\—more of a \j\ than a \z\, just a hint of an \h\, “a” pronounced \ah\.
My mother used to reassure me that Europeans would know how to pronounce my name right, because Europeans pronounce “a” as \ah\.
So I was completely heartbroken when a handsome English friend who had been calling me \frahnces\ oh so sweetly with such a cute accent suddenly added on a short "a" Wang to the end of it. Ouch.
So I always tell people, “My name is Frances Wong, spelled W-A-N-G, \wong\.” That looks funny in print, but can you hear it? I think it is important to teach others how to pronounce our names the right way, as well as take the time to learn how to pronounce their names correctly. It is a sign of respect and self-respect.
Sometimes people will ask, “But what about that guy? He pronounces it Wang (with a short 'a').” I tell them that that poor fellow has simply given up the fight. In Mandarin, there is no short "a" sound in "ang". It is pronounced \wong\. (“Wong” spelled with an “o” is actually a completely different surname, written with a completely different Chinese character, pronounced \wong\ in Cantonese and \hwang\ in Mandarin—but that is another story.)
I acknowledge that some names really are hard to get your mouth around. Xu for example. The \ü\ sound is pronounced like a cross between \shooo\ and \sh-ewww\. Apparently German speakers can pronounce that one.
I also know that tones are really hard for speakers of non-tonal languages to even hear, let alone speak.
Then there are the long, winding, multisyllabic or multiconsonant names, whether Thai or Indian or Japanese or Italian or Polish.
And do not get me started on names that are shortened into caricatures or turned into jokes to make them easier to remember.
As I tell the kids, “That is not a weird name, it is just a name you are not used to. If you lived in Malaysia or Turkey, you would think ‘Ashley’ or ‘Tiffany’ were weird names.”
At Clague Middle School’s eighth-grade graduation, the last advisory teacher to walk on stage and read the names of his graduating students read the names with a certain confidence and swagger, the long multisyllabic names from all around the world and the beautiful rolled “r’s” all tripped off his tongue smooth and velvet. It was a pleasure to hear the beautiful names as beautiful names, and without any hesitation. I got the sense that this teacher really knew his students. I wonder if they appreciated that he took the time to learn how to pronounce their names.
(This article has been revised to fix an html formatting error.)
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang will be taking a short break from
her "Adventures in Multicultural Living" to work on a book project this
summer. Look for her column to continue in September.
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, lead multicultural contributor for AnnArbor.com, and a contributor for New America Media's Ethnoblog. She is a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her website at franceskaihwawang.com, her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com, and she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.