Names are powerful. They are not simply what we are called, but who we are. It’s the way in which people refer to us, wave us over, or bring us up in conversation. Our names represent how we exist as a person, both to others and to ourselves, which is why it often causes frustration when people mess them up.
Recently, after changing my preferred name from Chloe to Arim, I’ve experienced the awkward discomforts that come along with having an unconventional name. In only a few weeks, I’ve done more than my fair share of pronouncing my name five times before resorting to just spelling it out. However, I’ve learned that if there’s one thing that’s more frustrating than saying my name over and over again, it’s not being called by it at all.
Names are a direct representation of our identity, and choosing not to use people’s preferred names can easily come across as a failure to show respect for a person and their background. Names only obtain their value when they’re actually spoken, and people should not hesitate to call others by their names, even when these names seem unfamiliar and uncomfortable to say. Embracing this discomfort and making an effort to learn and correctly say a name is a crucial step to forming a community that is truly inclusive, and ensures that we work towards valuing diversity rather than assimilation.
I understand wanting to avoid being corrected, but here’s the thing––getting a name wrong is one thing, but flat-out refusing to use a name just to avoid leaving your comfort zone is another. I chose to go by Arim to take a shot at reconciling my Korean and American identities, and being continuously called Chloe or having my new name be “accidentally” ignored seems to pry the two farther away from each other. Each so-called mistake continues to tell me that I can’t possibly be Arim in the United States or Chloe in Korea, when both names simultaneously embody who I am.
I’m okay with helping people get my name right, because I appreciate that they’re trying to learn instead of simply frowning and walking away. But when my name starts fading out of use just because it’s slightly harder to remember and pronounce, I worry that I’m fading out of other people’s thoughts as well, solely because they’re afraid of the mild embarrassment my name might cost them.
Pronouncing non-anglo-saxon names and accepting the unease that we may feel when doing so is necessary to truly promote diversity, instead of merely encouraging conformity. I know too many Asian and Asian-American people who have adopted English names, such as my family members and friends, because they believe their real names would present too big a burden for them in a predominantly white society. Of course, if people want to choose a new name for themselves in a new environment for any number of reasons, and are happy with what they’re called, that’s absolutely great. However, if people truly love the names they were born with and feel reluctant to go by anything different, they shouldn’t have to feel pressured to hide or change their names. These people have vibrant, unique cultures of their own, and they should not have to worry about being pushed to the back or forgotten simply because others hesitate to pronounce a few syllables.
Convenience is a feeble excuse for refusing to call someone the way they want to be called, especially in the context of the incredible significance names hold. By repeatedly avoiding saying someone’s name, we erase the individuality that is inherent within their names, and force them to slowly become what society desires them to be, rather than staying who they are. Instead of continuing to expect a diverse group of people to try to blend in with one another, it’s crucial that we try our hardest to say the right names the right way, and thus fully recognize each individual we encounter, and respect the myriad of identities that exist within our school and country.
Don’t be afraid to say people’s names, mine included, wrong (but also don’t keep doing so after you’ve been corrected). Don’t drag out the awkward pause for too long, and definitely don’t pretend like these names aren’t right there for you to use, because they may be tricky, but you’re more than capable of trying. I’m not ‘she,’ ‘that girl,’ or even ‘Chloe’ anymore. I’m Arim. I want people to call me by my name, and to call others by theirs.