A while ago, I wrote a Jagged Noodles column titled “Asian Parents, Stop Naming Your Kids Kenny!” Since then, I have met at least twelve Asian dudes named Kenny, Ken, or Kenneth. Eight of them with the last name Nguyen. All of them proficient at the keyboard. Look, I have nothing against Kennies. In fact, all the ones I’ve met are very nice people. The blame rests squarely on their parents, who made terrible naming choices. Out of good intentions to have their kids blend into U.S. life, they doomed them to a stable, uneventful life. It will be difficult to be a famous Ken, Kevin, or Tina Nguyen, because there’s, like, a gazillion of them. Worse, however, is the fact that each time ethnic parents give their kid an “American” name, a little bit of their culture dies. And that is incredibly sad. And boring.
Which is why I am calling for a “Reclaim the Name” movement. For too long our communities, led by our parents, have been made to feel inferior. They internalize the discrimination, giving their kids mainstream White names. But we should feel pride in our cultures. I mean, aren’t we proud of our food and our awesome chopstick skills, for example? Our name is the one thing we can definitely control, so let’s start owning it.
If you have a mainstream White name, but an ethnic middle name, start going by your middle name. Parents giving kids mainstream names but ethnic middle names is an obvious indication that they want their kids to retain connections to their culture. If you have this choice of which name to go by, there is much symbolic power in choosing to go by your ethnic name. If you don’t have an ethnic middle name, ask your parents what they would have named you if you had been born in the family’s homeland. Go by that instead.
But what if I have a cool name, you ask? I have a rule: If you don’t know anyone else in your circle who has the same name, you should keep it. If your parents are creative enough to give you a Gaelic, Klingon, Norse, or made-up name, keep it. Your name now is no longer about conforming to mainstream culture; it is about transcending societal norms, which is cool. If it sounds White, change it.
Use the right pronunciation when you introduce yourself. I had a friend named Nhan, who introduced himself as “Nan,” even though it’s pronounced almost exactly like the second syllable in the word “canyon.” “It’s easier for people,” he said, “and I don’t want to spend all that time correcting people.” What’s so hard about “It’s ‘Nhan,’ like in ‘canyon’”? This is our cultures we’re talking about. It’s worth the time to get things right, and it sends the message that our names are just as important to get right as anyone else’s.
Correct people’s pronunciation. Repeatedly. For a while people called me “Huey Lee.” But that is not how it’s pronounced. It’s “hwee” and the “lee” is more like “leh.” Five years ago, I started correcting people: doctors, teachers, Safeway clerks who are compelled to thank you by name. After a while, it just became natural. “It’s actually ‘leh,’” I would say, and people in general are very responsive. If we correct people enough times, they will get it, and it will spread so that other people with the same names will also benefit.
We should own our names the way we own our chopstick skills. When our “American” friends don’t know how to use chopsticks, do we say, “Oh, I’ll just use forks also then”? No, we teach them to use chopsticks. They stumble a few times, but after some practice, they develop the skill and they’re proud of it. If we can all reclaim our names, our cultures will be better off for it. At the very least, it’ll be less boring.
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