Before you read on, it’s pronounced like a T-S. Tsao.
My second grade teacher would always let me check out the advanced reading books, so she was pretty cool by my standards. But she could never say my name right, and that bothered me. No, not ‘chow,’ I would say. Not ‘cow,’ I would correct. She was an amazing teacher, but I just wished she would pronounce my name correctly. My name is three letters, was it really that hard?
One day, she came up to me while I was doing my multiplication.
“So I talked to Julia Yi’s father, and he says your last name is pronounced ‘chow’,” she said in a kind of final way, before checking on someone else’s times tables.
I remember feeling … odd. I was seven, but I knew I was still right, because my mom said it a certain way, my dad said it the same way, my aunties and teachers in Chinese school said it the same way. I guess Mr. Yi probably just told her it was pronounced ‘chow’ so I wouldn’t have to keep arguing with her, but at the time, I knew I didn’t want it to be pronounced that way. And I didn’t know why my teacher seemed kind of satisfied to be right, just because another Asian parent told her she was doing fine.
It wasn’t the first time this kind of thing had happened. I remember in kindergarten, my teacher wrote ‘CHAO’ all over my reading folders, which confused me to no end. I might have been a toddler, but I at least knew my last name was spelled C-A-O. I would feel uncomfortable about the way they spelled my name, even if I couldn’t figure out why. I didn’t like seeing that h in Cao. It just didn’t belong there. But it wasn’t the end of the world, so I just let it slide. I was a busy person, okay? I had letters to trace. My pottery butterfly was only halfway finished. One ‘h’ on my folder wasn’t going to ruin me.
The game changed when in the fourth grade, I joined the elementary school drama club. It was exactly four people: me, and my three friends. When the teacher asked for introductions, she asked me how I pronounced my surname. I said it for her. Cao.
“Oh, like a T-S! Okay, got it.”
And with that, my whole world changed. Like a T-S. It became the automatic response to answering many more years of pronunciation questions. But more than that, it proved one very important thing to me: non-Chinese people can say my name right. And it doesn’t take a lot of effort to learn it quickly.
It might not seem like a big thing, but when everyone treats your name like it’s some strange, unapproachable concept, it can feel alienating. I always felt like an other, an abnormality among the “regular” names of the world. A burden on the teachers who had to pronounce my weird, foreign name. Now, I know that’s not true. My name is not a burden — it is a name no lesser than any other. But for a long time, I avoided telling people my last name. I thought I didn’t need it. If Rihanna and Beyoncé didn’t use their last names, I don’t need to use it either, right? I know it’s different now. But still, when someone pronounces my name right, it feels a little victorious. Maybe that’s why many Chinese parents give their children English names. Maybe it’s partially so that their children don’t have to constantly explain their name to everyone.
I don’t blame non-Chinese people for not knowing how to say my name right away. If you grow up in an environment where you never have to learn it, how can I expect you to know? But if you refuse to try and learn it, if you laugh it off and shrug helplessly, or tell me how to say my own name, that’s where the issue arises. Because with globalization, the rise of development in countries around the world, and innovations in technology, our world is getting smaller. And with that, our cultures are interacting more and more. It’s just so illogical to avoid learning names that sound foreign to you.
My first year of college, our lecture was looking at a Chinese woman, Bei Bei Shuai, convicted of murder due to an attempted suicide while pregnant that killed her fetus (a whole other issue, but that’s for another time). Our professor skimmed over Shuai’s name, calling her “this woman” the whole time. In a lecture hall of 200 people, our professor showed that you can ignore a person’s name if it sounds foreign, because it doesn’t matter. I don’t believe it was ill-intentioned. But it reminded me of second grade, of kindergarten, of every incident where people would sigh helplessly and say “I’m just not going to get it.” Hesitation condones ignorance, which in turn condones hate. #SayMyName was just an example of that. I don’t need anyone to ‘get it.’ But I need you to try. Because if I can try with all the Polish, you can make sure my last name sounds like a T-S in the beginning. If I can respect your name, you can respect mine.
I know I don’t have the hardest name in the world. I know some people who have had to explain their first name and last name, who go through life with teachers pausing during attendance and recognizing confused silence as their name. And I know the hesitation isn’t meant to be malicious. But the world is shrinking. And there is always time to learn.