“How do you say your name again?” was a common question I heard growing up. From other peers, teammates, teachers, and substitutes(especially them), the question seemed to follow me no matter where I went. It was nothing like the slurs or other degrading names that were thrown at me, but for some reason, it was something that still resides deep in my heart. Eventually, I even forgot how to say my own name.

My name is Jiayi Wang. Pronounced exactly like how it is spelled in Chinese (jia-yi). But for some reason, it was like a riddle to others. As a kid I loved my name and flaunted it around to anyone who was willing to listen. I was always told by my mother that my name meant beauty and brains and so I believed that it meant beauty and brains. I loved the way my name sounded when my mother called me and I loved the way it looked spelled on paper. However as I got older, a new reality approached me.

I recall teachers coming up to me at the start of each school year and telling me that “they were not the best with names” and will “try their best to remember my name by the end of the year.” They would always tell me this with a smile on their faces and then laugh about it afterwards like it was a joke. I never understood what was funny. Was I so unimportant that it would take them a whole year to remember my name? How was my name any different from Chloe or Phoebe? Those names sounded nothing like how they were spelled as well, but they never seemed to trouble the teachers half as much as mine. My name wasn’t 100 letters long or composed of non english letters, so why was it so difficult? Sometimes, even at the end of the year, my teachers would say my name wrong. Or they would call me by the name of the other asian girl in class. It didn’t matter if the other asian girl wore glasses or had a different haircut, we just looked “too similar.”

Substitute days were the worst. I would sit at my desk dreading for attendance to be called. The beginning of attendance would always flow by so quickly.
“Isabella”
“Here”
“James”
“Here”
“Matthew”
“Here”
Then there would be a long pause. I would watch as the substitute’s smile went down as they stared long and hard at my 5 letter name. It was like my name was a monster that they were trying to battle against. Some subs would attempt at my name, pronouncing it completely wrong as if they didn’t just pronounce the name ‘genevieve’ right a few seconds ago. Others would simply laugh and directly apologize for not knowing how to say my name. The other students sat quietly and stared as I softly said my name aloud. The substitutes would thank me and move on but I could tell that they didn’t really care. For the rest of class, they would avoid calling on me to answer questions in fear that they would have to say my horrendous name.

My name became a curse to me. It troubled others and it no longer made me feel beautiful or smart. Soon, I forgot how to say my name. I would hesitate during self introductions and I would make my friends call me by a westernized nickname. None of my social media handles would contain my cursed and troubling name. I would sometimes even lie and say my name was Joyce instead. I was ashamed and embarrassed by my cultural name. It became worse when my little sister was born and my parents named her Jenny. Why wasn’t I given an American name? Why must I be the one who is ostracized by my white peers? Why me? Why?

Sadly the story ends here. I wish this story could end happily like a fairytale and that I somehow miraculously started to love myself. However I can not say with full confidence that is true. It took a long journey of self discovery and reflection to get where I am today. I am still in recovery of finding the love for myself and my background. However, my name is Jiayi Wang, it means that I am beautiful and smart. It is part of my culture and nothing can change that.

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4 thoughts on “How do you pronounce that”
  1. Great essay! This struggle is real. I too have a similar experience and it makes me feel it was my fault that my name causes others to have a difficult time to pronounce. Jose is also a cultural name, while everyone knows how to pronounce it.

  2. Jiayi, It hurts my heart to see that the inability of others to pronounce and remember your beautiful name has caused you to love yourself less. You are beautiful and smart regardless of how other people treat your name or you. Your identity is yours to define, accept and love.

  3. Jiayi,

    My first name is Xi, which Chinese character is “曦,” which means sunshine, particularly in the morning. Its Chinese pronunciation is “xī,” which sounds like “shi” in English. Many non-Chinese speakers have difficulty in pronouncing it correctly. One of my English teachers requested me to use an English name at her spoken English class when I was attending a graduate school in China. I chose Rick as my nickname since I liked the movie “Casablanca.” However, I didn’t like my English nickname, Rick, which doesn’t have the morning sunshine.
    Right after I came to the USA, I was confused about which name to use when I introduced myself. An elder Chinese immigrant suggested me using my Chinese name. She told me that, “if others couldn’t pronounce your name correctly, it’s their inability, not yours.” I took her advice 100%. Whenever anyone has difficulty in pronouncing my name correctly, I help them to improve their pronunciation. I have my morning sunshine, and they learn something new. It’s a win-win.

    Xi

  4. As an American who has been immersed in Chinese culture through marriage and travel, I can relate to the struggle and frustration of properly pronouncing names. I try hard to make sure I learn the correct phonetic pronunciations for my students, friends, and relatives.

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