In New York City, where nearly 200 different languages are spoken, the names people go by aren’t always as common as John, Mary, Jane or Steve. For those with less common monikers, mispronunciations of their names may come as frequently as train delays.
Although this issue can be just a minor nuisance for some, it can also be a chronic strain for people who say they experience additional social barriers because of their names. A person with a name that is easier to pronounce and write in English may not have this issue — unless they’re at Starbucks. But when a name deviates from the norm, mispronunciations can become a daily challenge. And, worse, native English speakers may avoid saying a name or even addressing the person in order to circumvent a challenging or unfamiliar pronunciation.
Linguists say the consequences of this can be wide, including the erosion of cultural diversity in society. This degradation of diversity was observed at large when Eastern Europeans migrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s, and many left their original names at Ellis Island in hopes of experiencing a smoother employment process and building up communities, researchers say.
A 2013 research study titled “The Economic Payoff of Name Americanization,” which looked at European and Northern Asian immigrants’ experiences during their naturalization processes from 1919 to 1930, showed that those who Anglicized their names went on to do better financially.
The study stated that, “When comparing the labor market trajectories of two migrants both named Guido at birth, one who Americanizes his name to John and one who keeps his name, John’s occupational-based earning growth is 22% higher than Guido’s occupational-based earning growth.”
Today, people of immigrant descent still negotiate with the tension to fit in with an ethnic or uncommon name. WNYC spoke with New Yorkers who maneuver through life with names that affect their sense of place and community.
Sacrifices to assimilate
Tiffany Tsung lives in Manhattan. She was born in California and is the daughter of two cancer researchers who left Beijing in search of opportunity. She said her mom and dad wanted her to fit in wherever, and not just with the Asian community. They assimilated into the melting pot in the Bay Area, where Tsung took a two-year gap after her high school graduation to focus on making friends and playing sports, she said. Her parents were focused on her being well-rounded in different activities. When her family moved to Beijing for a few years, Tsung said the experience made her feel torn between cultural identities.
She was 8 years old, and there, she went by, 宗义婵, or “Zong E-Chan,” written with her surname first. 义婵 resonates with her identity more than Tiffany ever did, she said, “ 宗义婵 means someone who’s loyal and beautiful.”
Her English name encapsulates the pressure her parents felt to fit in, she said, but she’s realized over the years this aspect of her Anglicized identity does not reflect who she is inside. 宗义婵 would present a truer display of her identity, but that decision would come with its own consequences, she said.
Tsung is an executive assistant at the Asian American Federation, and recently added 宗义婵 to her business cards. And although she assists Asian communities that include many Chinese speakers, she worries about using the Chinese spelling of her name outside the nonprofit’s walls. She said it’s because Asian-sounding names are less likely to be selected from hiring pools compared to Anglicized ones.
In 2017, NPR’s “Code Switch” reported that Asian last names on resumes typically lead to fewer job interviews.
David Zhu, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, teaches how names can affect overall conditions in the workplace for people, particularly in relation to diversity, equity and inclusion.
“When people find it hard to pronounce your name, they are unlikely to remember you, they are unlikely to want to talk with you, they just happen to avoid you subconsciously sometimes,” Zhu said.
But this reaction sets deeper implications for how diverse cultures relate to one another.
“Having an ethnic name can bolster communication barriers at times, because the conversational challenges it has on English speakers may dissuade them from participating in conversation. And this is why oftentimes immigrants, especially Chinese-speakers, feel pressured to make others feel comfortable with an Anglicized name,” said Zhu.
Similarly, Tsung said she plans to take on the last name of her fiancé, who is white.
“I think about what my name would look like if it’s Tiffany Tsung versus Tiffany ‘white last name.’ Someone not seeing my picture might make a snap judgment.” Tsung said.
Zhu said the benefits of an Americanized name clash with a full scope of ethnic representation. The best manner of addressing the push and pull experienced with having an ethnic-sounding name in the U.S., he said, relies heavily on personal choice.
“There are some more social costs in the sense that while some people decide to adopt a more Americanized name, [whether] some use it as a nickname [or] as a legal name, the cost is they gradually give up their original name,” he said.
Tsung said she thinks her name change might signal that she isn’t proud of her heritage, though she understands it could have positive impacts on her career and job opportunities. At the very least, she said, she is satisfied with being known as 宗义婵 in China.
A unique name is no walk in the park
Soletia Lee lives in the Canarsie neighborhood of Brooklyn. She is a Caribbean film student at Brooklyn College, one of the city’s most ethnically diverse academic communities. Her first name is mispronounced all the time because the “i” is silent. It is pronounced So-Lee-Ta, but she hears it being said as Suh-Lisha or Suh-Lee-Tee-Uh almost every day, she said.
“In the past, I’ve been quick to say, ‘Oh yeah, that ‘i’ … don’t worry about the ‘i’.’ You can argue, it’s me being polite, but you can also say I’m overextending myself,” Lee said. It’s “because if someone pronounces my name wrong it does not bother me, I always correct them.”
Her mother, who is from Grenada, was a fan of Spanish soap operas when she arrived in the U.S. in the late 1980s. The inspiration for Soletia’s name came from a telenovela character who was referred to as “Solitaria,” meaning “lonely” in Spanish. Soletia’s mom, who isn’t a Spanish speaker, thought the character was unique and decided to create a new name out of the sound of “Solitaria,” pronounced So-Lee-Tar-Ee-Uh.
Lee’s mother intended for her to stand out with her name, but Lee said people hardly say it right initially. Now, she has to establish a pronunciation of her first name that goes against how most English speakers will read it.
Constantly correcting people on the pronunciation of your name is psychologically taxing, said Susan Behrens, a professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders who teaches linguistics at Marymount Manhattan College. And living with such a burden can place a person at odds with how they perceive themselves.
“If you have a lifetime of people commenting on your name, struggling with it, or saying, ‘Oh, that one’s a doozy,’ you really are going to feel different, and maybe that you don’t belong,” she said.
Despite the reactions she gets from correcting people, Lee said she is sticking with the fight.
“The history that my parents created behind the name for me, it’s a big part of me and I feel I should defend it,” Lee said. “You don’t go to artists and ask them ‘Why did you decide to name this person this way or why did they choose this color?’”
However, Behrens, who researches the origin of names, or onomastics, at the American Names Society, also said that the onus for protecting unusual names is a wider social responsibility, because it benefits the intersectionalities of the melting pot that is New York.
There’s ‘creative power’ in having a unique name
Latif Nasser is a Canadian-born journalist with Tanzanian and Indian roots. The science reporter and host of WNYC’s RadioLab said his first name is pronounced LUH-tif. He said it is hardly accepted by English speakers, who often assign him their own interpretations like Lufa or Lester instead. And in the Muslim world, people will not even try to utter his name.
Although Nasser isn’t a practicing Muslim, his given name is a synonym for God in Islam.
“Naming someone God, it’s just the kind if thing you don’t do,” he said.
The prejudices attached to his name have put him under pressure in the U.S. and elsewhere.
Nasser, who was raised in Toronto, said he frequently traveled across the Canadian-American border after enrolling at Dartmouth College in 2004. He said that customs agents singled him out because of his Muslim name after the 9/11 attacks.
“They’ll take me out of the line, they’ll pull me into this other room, then they’ll take my passport, and then I’ll just be sitting there … and they’ll make me wait for like, half an hour,” he said. “And I’ll be like why did that just happen?” Customs agents told him they stopped him for not having a common name, said Nasser.
And even in Muslim-majority countries, where the name is widely known, he said it still was not accepted because practicing Muslims would only utter the word Latif during prayer.
“When I was in college, I did an exchange term in Morocco, which is like sort of the first Muslim country I ever spent time in, and it was so weird. Nobody would call me my name. And then everyone would keep sort of insisting to me that my name was not my name,” he said, “They would call me Abdullatif.”
The added prefix, Abdul, meaning “servant of,” altered the meaning of his name to “the servant of the most gentle.”
Nasser is convinced that changing his name would not serve his life’s purpose. He said while people with popular names like Chris do not get judged at face value, the lessons from the adversity he faced are priceless.
“There is some kind of a creative power there, to have an unusual name. For me it was unusual in a particular way, and to some people, it was in a fearsome way,” Nasser said. “But then to be able to come in and be like, ‘Hey, I’m like the most harmless guy you’ll ever meet in your life,’ there’s something kind of liberating about that.”
Through his struggles with his name, Nasser is convinced that unusual names build strong characters. So he’s passed the baton. He and his wife, who is Jewish, named their first son Fivel, meaning “bright one” in Hebrew/Yiddish, and their second son Haqq, which is yet another synonym for God in Islam, meaning “truth.”
“My parents named me in a way literally as a prayer,” he said. And “I gave my kids a name, in another kind of prayer, almost like a political prayer. Like this kid can and should be able to exist, and can signify out loud that I come from a Muslim background and that’s OK. That’s not a thing that is grounds for harassment and abuse. It’s a thing that I hope, trust and pray will be grounds for curiosity and friendship and love,” he said.
Ultimately, a multicultural setting will allow for more names to be normalized over time. And that is why Behrens said that if we do not accept someone’s name, we are not respecting that person’s identity. What’s more, a name sets profound meaning to a person in how some choose to live.
Choosing an Americanized name with a similar meaning and purpose
Wellington Chen is the executive director of the Chinatown Business Improvement District and Chinatown Partnership nonprofits. He was born in Taiwan, where his name was 陳作舟, or “Chén Zuò Zhōu,” with the family name written first.
陳作舟 comes from an ancient poem called “江山以你作舟車.” This Mandarin text means “you are the vehicle to traverse mountains and rivers.” 陳作舟 means boat maker, Chen said.
“Before there [were] any bridge connections and you needed to go over to the other side, [the boat maker] needed to make a good boat. [They were] the connectors, and people’s lives depended on [them] because that boat better not leak and better not sink,” Chen said.
He moved to Hong Kong as a young adult to attend school, where he said he was influenced by a British tutor to make an appropriate name change before eventually coming to the U.S. Chen said he perceives his name change similar to the reason why many people dress up for Comic Con — because people revel in playing multiple identities.
“We all go through different phases in our life. As a youngster, you wear the school uniform in Hong Kong, and when you go to middle school, you wear a different set of clothing. By the time you get to college, you don’t wear the same clothing that you wore,” Chen said.
He chose Wellington as a new given name in deference to V.K. Wellington Koo, a Chinese statesman who served as a crucial participant in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference. Koo’s diplomacy, Chen said, helped steer China to geopolitical success. For him, taking on this name was an obvious choice, in accordance with the name he was born with.
While Chen’s work is geared toward helping Manhattan’s Chinatown rebound from an economic downturn, the fallout from the 9/11 attacks, and rising anti-Asian hate, he said his sense of purpose is grounded in both of his names: 陳作舟 and Wellington.
“And so, it’s a very profound sense of responsibility, a lot [to put] on your shoulders. But it gives you your life mission that says you got work to do, son, and don’t mess up,” he said.