The universe has definitely heard my frustration with people who mess up my name in person, over email and on the phone. In just one day, I have been called "Tin" twice and "Tina" once on emails from colleagues, and was mistaken for "Pang" by someone who I have talked to once on the phone. What a sarcastic gesture, universe!
In recent years, I have had multiple discussions with myself, friends, family, colleagues, and even ride-share drivers about the epidemic of people butchering names of others, especially those who have foreign names. I know that we all move really fast, so mistakes are bound to happen. And I know that Starbucks employees are notorious for putting the wrong name or spelling of a name on the cup, regardless of whether it's an American or foreign name.
However, what I am talking about here is specifically the treatment of foreigners who stick to using their foreign names in America. I am talking about people who either guess or choose to call a foreigner by a version of their name without permission. I am talking about people who do not ask a foreigner how and what they want to be called. I am talking about people who do not even want to try pronouncing or spelling a foreign name. I am talking about people who have been in constant communication with someone who uses their foreign name yet still make repeated mistakes with the name. I am talking about the pressure that are put on foreigners to change or omit parts of their foreign names so that our society has a whole has an easier time accepting them and their names.
Not to brag or anything, but I think I have the easiest name in the world. In terms of spelling, phonetic, the amount of letters, I would think "Ting Lin" is on the easier side in terms of Chinese names. And still, when I try to tell people my name in person or on the phone, I get "King", "Tina", "Tang", "ping", "sing", "zing", you name it. Through electronic communication, I often get "Tin" or "Tina" as my first name. Even better, I get called my last name "Lin" as my first name on emails so much that I'm starting to believe that's my first name lol. And for my full name, I get "Tin Ling" or "Ting Ling" a lot. Getting called my last name as my first name is the one that annoys me most. My name is in the "First Name, Last Name" order that most American names are in. If I ever put my last name first, I add a comma so it would look like "Lin, Ting". You wouldn't confuse "John Smith" and call him "Smith" instead of "John", so why do you do it to my name?
You might think this is something so trivial that it's not even worth discussing. I thought so too. I tried to act like it's cool and brush it off. And I probably have messed up someone's foreign name in the past. But if you think further, a name is more than just words that identify and differentiate one person from another. A name is something that a person carries with them all their lives, from birth to death. A name carries hopes of parents, depth of cultures, rich customs, meaningful objects, regions, nature, messages, sometimes religious connotations. A name becomes a person's identity, label, brand, business, reputation. A name signifies gender, or the lack thereof.
For example, my first name "Ting" was given by my grandmother. The left side of the Chinese character means "girl", the right side means "gazebo", and together you have an imagery of "a girl resting in a gazebo". And my name is only one variation of "Ting" as there are thousands of words that have the same sound but varies by the degree of tone and the composition of the characters within the word. My family name "Lin" has two characters that both mean "wood" so together, they make a forest. So essentially, when you mess up my name, you are messing with the beautiful and poetic imagery of "a girl resting in a gazebo in the woods". Like how dare you? Haha. My first name also can be interpreted into a phrase that means "a little girl growing up to be an independent woman who can stand on her own". And to think I gave all of this up when I first came to America and went by the name "Eileen". You see, it was a trend in China to have western names in the 90s. So when I got here, it felt natural to just transition into my English name. I used this name up until I finished high school.
I can't tell you how many times I have seen foreigners feeling embarrassed to say their full names, because of the complexity, sound, or length. I see them immediately provide their English names, or suggest to be called just by the first letters of their names, or omit parts of their names to accommodate the dazed and confused looks on people's faces. The foreigners feel as if without the accommodation, they will not be welcomed or accepted or remembered. And I don't think that's OK.
I think there's a layer of racism, ignorance, and prejudice embedded in this seemingly careless mistake. I think recognizing it as such is the first step to addressing our own biases. No, we are not horrible people just because we mess up someone's name. But we can and should be better if we want to move our society forward, to a place where everyone is treated with respect and love, regardless of where they are from. All it takes is a second glance at someone's name before we send the email, or ask someone if we are not sure how they want to be called, or a little effort to pronounce someone's name the right way. Don't make them feel like they have to change their names so they are easier on our tongues. Don't make them feel like fools trying to correct us on the spelling of their names for the 100th time. Don't make them feel unwelcome as they bravely spurt out their names. Let's take small steps so we can be the melting pot that we truly should be.