In The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi, Unhei is anxious about the first day of school. Newly moved from Korea, she worries that American kids won’t like her. Instead of introducing herself on the first day of school, she tells the class that she will choose a name by the following week. The book arrives at a warm and insightful ending, raising questions along the way about community and belonging, about who must do the work involved and why.
It’s a problem I know well. As Anand Giridharadas writes, about all the people in America who seem unable to pronounce his name:
Consider that misinformation is information that merely happens to be false, whereas disinformation is false information purposely spread. Similarly, mispronunciation is people trying too feebly and in vain to say our names — and dispronunciation is people saying our names incorrectly on purpose, as if to remind us whose country this really is.
Mispronunciation is a matter of limited tongues. Dispronunciation is a matter of limited hearts. For as long as I can remember, I have had to navigate around the shortcomings of both organs.
It’s why generations of immigrants quietly changed their names to avoid being reminded constantly of their foreignness by having others stumble over their names or simply refuse to say them. When I spoke in schools and had teachers and principals trip over my name, I learned to say, encouragingly, “Exactly the way it’s written. No hidden letters to ambush you, I promise. Come on, try it.” They’d laugh, and we’d move on. I was lucky. What I mostly encountered was mispronunciation and not dis-.
Because a name is not just a handle. It carries so much more. It is who we are, and surely a variety of names and identities enriches us all.