Krystal Hur: What's in a name?

Sunday, September 30, 2018 - 3:39pm

What's in a name?

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I used to dread the first day of school. I didn’t dread it because it meant that summer was ending and that I’d soon spend my evenings doing homework rather than relaxing. It was because teachers never pronounced my name right. Before I started going by Krystal, I went by my non-American, phonetically spelled (yet somehow still difficult to pronounce) name that I won’t write here because I know no one will be able to pronounce it.

The first day of school, I always had to listen to the teachers blunder through my name before I corrected them with the entire class watching me. Same with substitute teachers — my classmates would laugh as the teacher would try to say my name. Of course, I’m not blaming the teachers for not being able to pronounce my name. We both felt embarrassed as we became a spectacle. I know I can’t expect people to properly pronounce my name if they don’t speak the language from which my name originated.

I was reminded of this trauma after hearing about two recent celebrity interviews. Chrissy Teigen recently revealed on “The Tonight Show” (after being prompted by host Jimmy Fallon) that contrary to popular belief, her name is actually pronounced “tie-genn,” instead of “tee-genn.” She said of her name: “So, correct is Tie-genn. Do I want people to call me that? Not really, because then only half are going to do it. And then, would we want my dad to be happy?” Ariana Grande also recently said on Beats Radio, “my grandpa said ‘grand-eee.’” They then discussed how her grandfather changed the pronunciation to “grand-eee” most likely to make it sound more Americanized. However, neither of these women has ever corrected the public for saying their names wrong, and only discussed the way in which they say their names when prompted to do so.

Hearing Teigen and Grande discuss their names reminded me of how I used to feel correcting people about the pronunciation of my name. Often times, I felt that correcting them made no difference — all correcting them essentially did was teach them the formal mispronunciation of my name. When substitute teachers would butcher my name and excitedly ask if they pronounced it right, I always said yes. Honestly, I don’t think I would have been so uncaring about how people pronounce my name if I didn’t hate the way that my name sounded in its formal American pronunciation. I thought that it sounded too whiny and nasally and it made me dislike my name and cringe whenever someone would address me by it, so really, it didn’t matter to me whether or not anyone pronounced it in the formal way: Either way, they would be wrong.

However, in high school, I decided to go by the name Krystal after realizing I didn’t have to continue listening to my name being butchered in various ways. I chose “Krystal” because it was a name that everyone knew how to say, yet I knew that I wouldn’t become one out of a sea of many Krystals, as what sometimes happens to people with common names such as Emily or Alex.

Sometimes, I feel guilty about having changed my name, as if I’m abandoning my heritage or dishonoring my parents by rejecting the name that has defined me for so many years. However, when I remember the discontent I felt when I heard my name being butchered for so many years, I don’t feel as sorry. I think of it more as protecting my name from being tainted by so many bad memories of it being mispronounced, time and time again.

Interestingly enough, many of my friends protested when I told them about my choice to go by “Krystal.” They told me they didn’t like the name “Krystal,” and some of them even made it a point to not call me “Krystal” even when referring to me when with other people. While I understood some people would not like the name “Krystal,” I found it confusing some of my friends thought they were entitled to define me in the way they wanted, rather than in the way that I wanted. Perhaps it was confusing for them to understand why I would want to go by an entirely new name; but then again, they were the same people who unknowingly made me hate my name.

In a similar vein, when I studied Chinua Achebe’s "Things Fall Apart" in high school, my English teacher told us in the middle of discussion she calls one of the main characters, Ikemefuna, by “Ike”, a nickname I believe she coined herself. Most of the other students followed her and started calling the character by that nickname, too. However, I always thought it was a bit insulting to “Americanize” his name in such a way without his consent. While Ikemefuna is a fictional character, and people give other people nicknames quite frequently, the sole purpose of calling him “Ike” was to make our lives easier. “Ike” wasn’t a nickname borne out of affection but of pure laziness about saying four extra syllables.

Knowing what I know now about how to pronounce Grande and Teigen's last names, I’m unsure about where to proceed. I don’t want to be complicit with the same laziness that changed Ikemefuna to “Ike” in my English class. Do I start saying their names the way they’re supposed to be pronounced? The logical answer is yes — but there’s inevitably going to be people who haven’t watched their respective interviews who are going to believe that I’m mispronouncing their names and think that I’m a complete dunce.

Perhaps a better question to ask is what Grande or Teigen would prefer people to do. Because it’s their names, they’re ultimately the ones who should have a say in how we refer to them. Just as I exercised my power over my name by changing it to Krystal despite some of my friends’ opposition, they too should be the ones who get to decide how their names are said. While Teigen said she doesn’t want people to pronounce her last name the way that it’s supposed to be pronounced, Grande was less clear about how she wants people to say her last name. It’s possible that she doesn’t have a clear preference — and that’s fine, too —as long as it’s clear that she’s the one who rightfully has the power over how others pronounce her name.

 

Krysal Hur can be reached at kryshur@umich.edu.