Why Having An Ethnic Name Is Annoying But Something To Be Proud Of

There are times when we find certain names harder to pronounce than others. Maybe ethnic names, cultural names or names with more than a few syllables. Names we have never heard of that make us stop and wonder if we’ll ever get the pronunciation down pat.

I was born Mabel Kwong in Australia to Chinese-Malaysian migrant parents. Or Kwong Li Teng (lee ting/ tíng, 丽婷), Mabel – that’s how my name is written on official documents in Malaysia and Singapore. While the first-middle-last-name convention is standard in the Western world, surname/cultural names usually come first before first names in Chinese culture – think last-first-name or first-last-middle-name conventions in a culture where family and seniority are esteemed.

Excuse me. What did you call me? A name, no matter how unique or mundane, says a bit about ourselves | Weekly Photo Challenge: Door.

Excuse me. What did you call me? A name, no matter how unique or mundane, says a bit about ourselves | Weekly Photo Challenge: Door.

Although I go by Mabel in professional and social settings, I’ve encountered numerous people who are convinced that that’s not my real name, lumping me in the same boat with those going by non-Anglo names. Sometimes these instances are annoying. Sometimes there is more to these instances than meets the eye.

It was a 10am graduate tutorial at university. The first tutorial for a subject dissecting theories surrounding audience reception. I stared at my opened notebook on the table, sleepy eyes opening and closing, opening and closing. The tutor rattled names off the attendance list. Emily. Jack. Lok. Min

Sometimes it’s frustrating bearing an ethnic name because people pronounce it wrong more times we can count; we’re made to feel a bit of a freak. Sometimes the more they say our ethnic name, attempting different variations, the more it sounds ridiculous. But props for persisting, trying to get it right.

“Kim,” the lecturer called out in her Malaysian accent. She made a mark on the sheet in her hand. “Lee Tin.” Silence. My heart felt as if it skipped a beat. Been a while since I heard my Chinese name. Is she really calling me? I’m…a tin can?

The case of mistaken identity tends to follow those of us with cultural names. In Australia, at times there’s the mentality we’re from “somewhere” if we have a non-Anglo first, middle or last name. Sometimes this is true, other times not so…

…one afternoon during my last semester of undergraduate studies, I knocked on my lecturer’s door, ready for a chat about graduate programs in Applied Mathematics. A broad smile stretched across his wrinkled, fair Caucasian face, he greeted me, “Kwong…Kwong! Hong Kong, right?” I forced a smile. “Mabel. Australia, actually.”

Sometimes the more someone tries to get our name right, the more we feel embarrassed.

Sometimes the more someone tries to get our name right, the more we feel embarrassed.

Having a cultural name or a name others generally find hard to say, at times we feel stripped of who we are. When others automatically assign us an abbreviated name they can pronounce, we come to question who we really are, and who we are not. “Lee Tin!” The name reverberated around the tutorial room for the third time. Suppose that’s a version of me….

I raised a hand and put on a polite voice. “Did you mean Mabel? It’s Leee Tiiinng. But I go by Mabel.” The lecturer looked at me with bespectacled eyes, looked down at her list. “Mabel,” she said, and finished marking attendance and started the class.

Mabel, as it has always been. Mabel, as everyone in Australia calls me. I leaned back in my chair, relaxed. About right. About time. Time. The last time someone called me by my ethnic name was…back in Malaysia and Singapore years ago, when my teachers there read out my name in full from the attendance lists. . Nothing more than a hazy memory at the back of my mind now it seems…

There’s every chance someone hasn’t heard our name before, is unfamiliar with how it’s pronounced and so can’t wrap their tongue comfortably around each syllable. But there’s also every chance someone can’t be bothered making the effort when it comes to (repetitively) learning how to pronounce ethnic names correctly.

Ethnic. A word connoting cultural hierarchies, often referring to minority groups in the West. In Australia, adopting an Anglo name over an ethnic one on resumes might give one an edge when it comes to finding work – ethnic names are deemed inferior. Can an Anglo demographic be classed as ethnic? Can a white person’s Christian name be classed an ethnic name? Arguably no reason why not depending on one’s perspective.

Sometimes names divide us as beings in this world.

Sometimes names divide us as beings in this world.

Growing up, my parents called me Mabel, never 丽婷. But as a kid, my mum made me write and pronounce 丽婷 until I perfected forming the shape of these Chinese characters and articulated the tones exactly how they sound. I didn’t resent these repetitive lessons though, remembering them like they happened yesterday. However, never have I once thought my Chinese name matched my personality: “beautiful and graceful” as it loosely translates to and I’m klutzy by nature. Moreover, time and time again, Chinese names are given because they sound poetic and roll off the tongue nicely; the meaning behind the given names is secondary.

Each and every day, our name rarely defines our achievements. As writer Hsin-Yi Lo said, our name can’t stop us from achieving. Ultimately, the ways we act and carry ourselves leave lasting impressions: giving an inspiring speech to an appreciative audience who might not have paid attention to our introduction. Getting the attention of someone we fancy from a distance just by using eye contact.

We are more than our name, yet perhaps our name completes the person we are. Our name, inscribed onto our being on our first days in this world, is an infallible marker of our identity and a door to our soul. Our name is nature, an extension of ourselves we’re comfortable with or at least a part of ourselves which we get used to at some point. A part of ourselves we surrender when making connections and striding out into the big, bad world. As writer Haruki Murakami suggested:

“They say a name expresses the things it stands for, but I wonder if it isn’t the other way round – the thing gets more and more like its name.”

Learning to embrace our name, we fly high.

Learning to embrace our name, we fly high.

Whether unique or different than most, each name is embedded with tales of the past and symbolic of moments in time. An “ethnic name” might make us stand out; we might be proud of it or brush it aside constantly. But at the end of the day, either way ethnic names remind us of a life we’ve lived, the shoes we’ve walked in. Remind us of the essence of what makes us, us – our values and where we stand in the present.

The clock ticked noon. End of class. I flicked my notebook and it fluttered shut. My eyes flipped wide open. Scribbled on the cover, scribbled without much thought when I got the notebook a month ago: Mabel Kwong Li Teng. As it has always been. As it has always been whether I’ve moved east or west, wherever I’ve been. And wherever I’m going.

Our ethnic name. Our first, middle and last names. No matter the inconveniences our names may bring, they carry pieces of treasured cultures, pieces of cultures that stick with us for a while to come because we, treasure them.

Do others find your name hard to pronounce?

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284 thoughts on “Why Having An Ethnic Name Is Annoying But Something To Be Proud Of

  1. And if people stopped to think about it, things wouldn’t be so “them / us,” after all, every food is an ethnic food, every name is an ethnic name, every language is an ethnic language. We are all a little bit strangers, but why not choose to be neighbors instead?

    Liked by 2 people

    • What a great point, and I’m glad you picked up on that. We’re all different in our own way, with our own beliefs and ways of life. Everything is indeed ethnic, and for a long time hearing those who say that it isn’t, bothers me. In fact, it still bothers me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Another interessting post! This one made me think! While travelling to different countries, I had the problem that noone could pronounce my name right. At first I was very irritated by it. But then it stoped bothering me. They have called me all kind of things. Anna, Ann, Hannah, Anita, Annecita, instead of Hanne. I undertsand that my name is not that easy to prounouce for them…
    Now that my husband have moved to Norway with me, we are even thinking about changing his last name to mine, because people are juging a lot if they see a non-norwegain name…
    So I understand well where you are coming from, Mabel 丽婷. And I loved this post ❤


    • Haha, I love making readers think 😉 Maybe Hanne isn’t a common name in some of the countries you’ve visited and so people tend to find it hard to pronounce. You’re the first Hanne I’ve known! What a collection of nicknames you have.

      I hope the people stop judging. So sorry to hear that about your husband and hopefully it will all get worked out soon. Thank you for your nice words ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. i’m repulsed if somebody prejudice a person because how silly their ethnic names is, it;sa free world…
    never made some fun with something you won’t understand, i myself didn’t get a cljue why some chinese descent had two different name in the first place, but i accept it as a part of other cultures tradition…
    btw, if you had dick as your last name and act decent your are a gentlemen,but if act repulsive who ever your name is, you’re a dick thou, lol


    • “something you won’t understand” Couldn’t agree with you more there. So many different naming conventions and styles, I’m sure we don’t understand all of them. If we don’t get it, the least we can do is, like you, accept it as a way of life. Bullying and bringing others down because of their name is incredibly insulting on cultural, personal and social levels.


  4. Dear Mabel:

    I used the name Mabel Kwong or Li Teng Kwong, I can easily remember, and this name is very kind to me.

    For Westerners name, I just started learning English courses, I remember a book; name is represented with Mary and John, and later survey also found Mary and John are the most common names Westerners.

    Asians or Chinese named the child is very interesting, a lot of names are meaningful, like a number of people and if the family, the ancestors will take the name of a particular word, so you can distinguish the family hierarchy.

    There are also child’s name, is in accordance with the fortune-telling, according to the time a child is born to determine their life is one of those (Five Elements).

    My daughter that I gave them the name of Yun Jia 蘊嘉 (including all good things) and Yun Qi 蘊琪 (including independent character),they feel their own unique name, but too many strokes radical, haha……you Blog messages always warmly, and I believe this is a wonderful thing.

    meihsiu 🙂


    • Mary and John are pretty common names in Western culture. I’ve met quite a few John’s here in Australia, but Mary, not so. Maybe I need to socialise more, haha.

      Yes, Family hierarchy. Glad you mention that term because sometimes certain surnames in Asian cultures refer to certain clans and generations. If I remember history correctly, in the olden days in Chinese culture, the traditional characters were more prevalent than simplified Chinese characters a lot of us are used to these days.

      What lovely names your daughters have. Beautiful and I’m sure they are proud of their names and write them out proudly when they need to. Thank you for your encouragement as always, Meihsiu 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Well, Mabel must certainly be easier to live with in Australia. It’s good that your parents want to preserve your cultural heritage, but Australia is home – right? Just as it’s home to numerous people with backgrounds from every which where.
    As an aside- my maiden name was Szustakiewicz, and I was not entirely sorry to say goodbye to it on marriage. But it did have a certain… je ne sais quoi 🙂


    • Spot on, Jo. Everywhere we go these days there are people from all backgrounds, each with their own individual names. Pretty certain my parents want me to recognise my heritage and its significance, which I’m proud of.

      That is a nice maiden name you have. Certainly has it’s own character but I don’t think it’s one many are familiar with 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  6. my name Alexandra is easy to pronounce in all languages (I think) with slight variations… to the East it is pronounced Aleksandra, to the West it is Alegzandra lol 🙂 I like both… surprisingly for me, my family name Pavlova is a cause of confusion to the West, where everyone tends to put the stress on the first syllable PAvlova, whereas it should be PavlOva… but honestly, I dont mind 🙂
    I’ve always wondered where the stress is in your name MabEl, right? this is how I would pronounce it… 🙂


    • I always thought you had a cool name and say it how people say it in the East. Then again, sometimes I just think of you as Alex 😉 Pavlova is such a sweet-sounding name, perhaps because it’s a name of a dessert that is popular in Australia..

      Such an interesting question on how to pronounce my name. Mmm, you are right…think of the makeup brand Maybelline. My name sounds like that 😀


      • it’s funny I have never tasted the Pavlova dessert 🙂 hope I dont need to travel all the way to Australia for a bite 😀
        oh, Maybelline gives me a better idea about the pronunciation of your name… I would have pronounced it wrong (blush) …


        • Pavlova is a meringue-based dessert, made out of egg whites. Maybe some cafes in your area might sell it 🙂

          Oh, many, many people have pronounced Mabel wrong. In fact, in Spain this is quite a popular name and the “Ma” is emphasised. No shame 😀


  7. There is a truth in what you write here. Names are something or have some meaning. I’m always sad when somebody isn’t happy with his/her name. Well, but thanks for your thoughts.


  8. I’m amazed with your bird shots! Impressive, Mabel.
    There are many different ways to preserve our culture…. I can’t never pronounce Hispanic names corrected, but I respect their culture. 🙂


    • Thank you, Amy. When I took these shots, I was thinking of your bird photos for inspiration. I don’t think I’ve ever met someone of Hispanic background. So when the day comes, hopefully I will be able to pronounce their name 🙂


  9. I love how 丽婷 translates to beautiful and grace. There is certainly a great deal of beauty and grace in your eloquence and in the images you have here. I wish I had a cool name.


  10. Oh, my Chinese name is 柔瑺 (Rou Chang) and I’m sure you can imagine the nick names I used to have in school, so I dread telling people my Chinese name. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love my name, I just hate it when people purposely mis-pronounced it.


  11. hello mabel,
    i do appreciate the thought that goes with and meaning to the ethnic (chinese) (2 or 3 character) name but i just find it’s harder to remember/recall an ethnic name, especially among new acquaintances/friends. an ‘english’ name works better for me. don’t know why though.


    • Ethnic names often come in pairs, unique pairs, combinations and variations. So perhaps that is why some of us struggle to remember them at the drop of a hat – a name so “out there” that is eclipses our mind and memory.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Amazing read. I was fully into it and was visualizing how different people called you.

    Mine is simple to say (but still some variations in pronunciation depending on the part of the world one belongs to) but my wife some call it ‘Saru’, others ‘Saaru’ (not sure why because her name is exactly the former).

    I agree, culture matters more and that is what defined us (no matter what).


  13. One of my favorite things about your blog is looking at the number of comments you get Mabel, and how many of them are more than “great post” which is a bit annoying IMHO. I think it’s because not only are your posts thought provoking, you are also a good commenter on others’ blogs, which is great. As for me, the name question raises the question of marriage and whether a name change impacts a bride to a large or small degree. For me it was a disaster – I truly felt I left a big part of myself behind when I changed my name. Then I divorced the guy and perhaps the naming issue was more related to my choice of husband, not my choice of name LOL. I changed it again when I married my current husband and have been happier ever since 🙂 There are those who say names relate to numerology and can bring good fortune if they are the right formula. Who knows, right ? Anyway I like your name either way, and think you’re probably a terrific person whichever name you use!


    • Thanks, Tina. I’m always astounded readers take the time to comment here. It’s very humbling indeed. I admire your blog a lot and your work – your photography and engagement with readers. I’ve got lots to learn.

      So sorry to hear you’ve been on the sticky end of name changing. But I’m glad your name worked out in the end. In Chinese culture, that’s the belief, that a chosen name may or may not bring you good fortune. But yes, who knows 🙂


  14. I’ve known a number of people in the U.S. who’ve taken control of how their names are going to be mis-pronounced or misunderstood. One woman couldn’t bear the Americanized version of the R in her name and substituted a D. It wasn’t close to the original, but it was at least her choice. And people whose names use the Spanish-language system find Americans thinking their mother’s last name (which comes last) instead of their father’s (which comes second to last) is their family name. Some hyphenate the two, some run them together, and some reverse the order.


    • That is interesting to hear someone changing their name because they can’t stand the mis-pronunciation. It must drive them nuts. The Spanish naming system is fascinating, but confusing at times if we’re not used to it. I haven’t met many from Spain before, but I reckon quite a few of them get grief for their names as you inferred. Funny how some of us get used to a certain naming system and sometimes think that it rules the world.


  15. I have an ancient Bosnian name, one of those which are going extinct. I’ve never met anyone who could spell it at first try but that name suits me and I love it. My father always says that “special persons deserve rare and special names, names with history and dignity” and I love to believe in that 🙂


  16. I pretty much identified myself with this post! My name is most of the a problem. Back in Brazil people pronounced it correctly, though always spelled it wrong. In every other country in the world, which does not have Portuguese as official language, people have a hard time pronouncing it.
    It used to bother me, but now I don’t really care, hahaha I just get annoyed when they keep trying to get it right. It just comes into my mind “forget it, you won’t get it right, say whatever is easier for you” hahaha.
    Your name is very easy to say in Portuguese, it also exists in Brazil 😀 so I guess I won’t have a problem saying it!!


  17. I was going to like this post from the title. I have a blog post to put up one day when I have the right blog to put it in, on what is in a name. I got so bored of people turning my surname into a joke (because they don’t know how to pronounce it) and the 2000th person to crack the same joke getting annoyed that I didn’t burst out laughing. And I cringe whenever I am in the doctors surgery and they call out my name, so completely and ridiculously wrong and making me sound like I am an idiot. But I do like it when people make the effort to get it right and ask about its origins.


  18. I often find that People ask about my brother’s names all the time. They never ‘anglicised’ their names, and i Think they are proud of that because it shows their heritage. You make some really good points in your post. My brothers. They call themselves ‘Lenny and Ken’ for fun sometimes. Or is it ‘Leon and Charles’? It is not any easier 🙂


    • It must be annoying at times for your brother, getting asked about his name all the time. But I suppose after a while he got used to it and now rolls with the punches. Haha, your brothers sound very confusing when it comes to referring to themselves as a duo 😉


  19. Growing up in Southeast Nigeria, I never had a problem with people murdering my ethnic name because it was a very common one. But then they found it real hard to get my Christian name right.

    I didn’t know Maureen could be so hard to pronounce until I went away to boarding school at 10. I got called different versions of the name I just stuck to my ethnic name which people shortened anyway to three letters that just meant ‘time’.

    Now I live in the Southwest and it’s annoying that they get both my ethnic and Christian names wrong. But what can one do? I guess it doesn’t matter much in the large scheme of things. My name is not all I am.


    • “people murdering my ethnic name” That is a very creative way of describing it when people butcher your name. Sorry to hear people got your Christian name wrong so often back in boarding school. I supposed they struggled pronouncing the first syllable “Mau”. When I lived in Malaysia, the locals stuggled to pronounce this name too, among other Christian names such as Maurice.

      “My name is not all I am.” Well said.


      • omg, I’m so sorry, Mabel, this was a reply to your other post “Why is Melbourn the world’s most livable city”… I am not sure why my reply appeared in this post… and I was sure I commented on that one a couple of days ago, but couldnt see my comment today… I dont know, messed up something obviously, so sorry once again… would you like me to re-write my comment there? 🙂


        • Haha, no worries, Alexandra. You must be tired or something, have a break and rest. Up to you if you want to rewrite your comment, no pressure. I really appreciate you dropping by 🙂 Looking forward to more photos of your city from you ❤

          Liked by 1 person

  20. Hi Mabel,

    Growing up in England, ‘Beth Montgomery’ never really stood out as being ethnically different but I have always had to say, “Yes, it’s just Beth. Not Elizabeth. No not Bethany. Just Beth.”. This has always been annoying for me because it wasn’t common to have a ‘nickname’ as a first name when I was growing up (I guess my parents were ahead of the trend!). I’ve also experienced people saying, “Your mum is called ‘Sue Montgomery’? Shouldn’t she be called ‘Suzie Wong’?” Well, yes if she married someone with the surname, Wong and she wanted to be called Suzie but she didn’t and she doesn’t.

    I also learned through my cousins who also have the same ethnic background as me, we are Irish, Thai and Chinese that having an Irish first name and a Chinese surname is difficult in both the Eastern and Western worlds. Our Oriental family can’t pronounce their first names and our English friends have difficulty with their surname.

    I hope your book is going well. Bx


    • “a ‘nickname’ as a first name ” That is the first I’ve heard of this trend. I think it’s cool, and I also think Beth is such a lovely name. Short and sweet, and rolls off the tongue nicely.

      Very sorry to hear that people have suggested your mum be called “Suzie Wong”. That is not a very nice stereotype and I’m sure she is nothing like the character. It is unfortunate that certain names remind others of unfavourable portrayals and assumptions. I’m sure those who know you well or are eager to know you make the effort to get your first and last names right 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  21. This is a very well written article! 😀

    I have always gone by my ethnic (Chinese) name (which btw isn’t Aiyui, Just my pen name here ;)). And I’m telling you, living in a Scandinavian country, I honestly can’t say how many times it has been pronounced wrong or how many times I had to correct the teachers.

    I did find it annoying and somewhat embarrassing when I was little and often talked about how I would change my name to an English one when I get older. But as I got older, I just embraced it and I honestly don’t feel as myself if I don’t get called by it. Moreover, I have also encountered some positive experiences by using my ethnic name. E.g when getting new teachers, I could avoid being asked to answer questions (for maybe two weeks or longer) because they didn’t know how to pronounce my name. Plus, I also find it somewhat amusing and impressive when a teacher actually manage to pronounce my name right the first time XD


    • Thanks, Aiyui. What a lovely pen name that you have. First I’ve heard of and it sounds cute 😀

      Sorry to hear that your ethnic name has been pronounced wrong on various occasions. But good on you for learning to be comfortable with it and wear it with pride. And I bet it has a lovely meaning behind it too. Haha, that is funny to hear teachers avoid calling you because of not knowing how to say your name – and I bet that you felt like the teacher when you told them how to pronounce your name 😀


        • *Face palm* Accidentally hit the send button. What I was trying to write is that I only combined the word ai (love) and yui (which are some letters in my name) for my pen name :p ^^

          And no need for you to apologize! I just wanted to share my ups and downs after reading your article, which I could relate to 🙂
          Haha, you bet I felt like I had the authority! XD My p.e teacher actually only said the first half of my name (and she also pronounced it slightly wrong) but I did not really mind because it had happened before. But my friends would tell me to correct it, and when I didn’t they went and told her themselves. I’m very grateful for that, but I could see that my teacher got a little embarrassed. Haha XD


          • That is a great meaning behind your name. So sweet too.

            And it was so sweet of your friends to tell your P.E teacher your correct name. Your friends must have really liked your name and what it stands for 😀


            • Hehe, thank you ^^
              Yes I’m lucky to have them! But I have to admit that it’s quite funny that they get more irritated than I do :p I actually don’t think they know what my name stands for. I just think that they get irritated because I don’t xp


  22. Don’t talk to Le about getting her name mixed up. With the Vietnamese culture, possibly like in Chinese, names are usually FAMILY NAME, MIDDLE NAME, FIRST NAME. So on the birth certificate – thanks to a slight breakdown in communication with the registry office, Le’s name was all jumbled up for most of her life. It’s finally sorted now… thank goodness 🙂
    P.S. And the amount of times when despite spelling her name as “L-E”… people still assume it’s “L-E-E” and think that she has misspelled her own name! *sigh*


  23. Names are important. I can see why you start the discussion on ethnic names – and I agree with many of your commenters – all of us have ethnic names. I also believe that people shouldn’t be disturbed by wrongly pronounced names, because I want to believe people try to be polite and nice by using the “ethnic” name. I have had many foreign students, and I always ask for their own pronunciation before saying something. I mark the stress and write it down phonetically correct.

    Names are very important here in my country – I have chosen the names of my children after very much thinking…They have one name from my own family tree and one name from my husband’s family tree. Then, the name by which they are called, should tell something about their character. Emma, my daughter, her name is all about being energetic and very accurate. David, my son, got his name from the David who beat the giant Goliath (Bible). David was born some weeks too early and fought his way out because he didn’t get enough nutrition from the placenta.

    Now Emma is 25 years old, and when she was about 19-20, she was not that pleased with her name. A friend of hers changed her name to a fancier one….I was so sad about Emma not liking her name, because it was chosen from my heart and to fit her character. Now she has accepted it, but sometimes uses her second name (my grandmothers’ name) and that is perfectly OK!

    My own name is also difficult to people from other countries…

    Hugs – and thank you for always commenting and being interested!


    • “all of us have ethnic names” That, is so well said, Leya. So well put. It is very polite of you to ask your students their name when you aren’t sure how to pronounce it – I’m sure they don’t mind being the teacher for a second and giving you a mini-lesson on teaching you how to articulate it right 😉

      Emma. David. Two very lovely names with beautiful stories behind them. Glad Emma has come to love her name and I bet it suits her personality too. It’s interesting to hear many people choose names based on the names given to others within their own family – perhaps it’s a continuation of tradition, continuation of ensuring a certain name continues to exist in the long run.

      Really appreciate your comment, Leya. I love your photos, they are always so well shot and framed.


  24. Interesting article. I used to work in a multi national company and every day dealt with colleagues from all over, Europe, India, Far East and more, and I used to feel really bad for the poor pronunciation of particularly the Indian names by fellow British and American colleagues. Sometimes it was comical, sometimes it was excruciatingly embarrassing.

    I’d wonder why it was corrected so seldomly but I guess those whose names were used incorrectly just got used to it. Perhaps they saw is as ignorant, that’s what I suspected.

    Having several Mandarin-speaking friends, both Chinese originating and British, and having been involved in many discussions around the language and translations of the written characters into English, which never seem straightforward and result in several viable versions, I’ve also learned how difficult it is for one tongue to create alien sounds of another. Our mouths just have never had to make those sounds before. Throw in some Cantonese and Chiu chow and other dialects and it never ceases to amaze me how some people manage to communicate in so many different languages, particularly where a variety of intonations has such an effect on the meaning.

    I have to accept that it’s just a lot harder for some language speakers and individuals to adapt and learn than others, and pronunciation of names can be so problematic for some that the use of English derivatives or alternatives is just easier, especially as English is now so widely used and so often a second language.


    • And this is an interesting comment. There is something quite, I don’t know if this is right word to use but, personal about addressing someone by their name in person, face to face. Although one might get the name wrong, it sort of shows that they are addressing the other as a person. Then again, to think that a certain way of pronouncing syallables rules all is rather ignorant, agree with you on that.

      True that – English is often learnt as a second language. Sometimes it amuses me when others incorporate two languages into their everyday conversations – think Singlish, Chinglish – but in a good way. In fact, I find it fascinating.


  25. My surname has always been a confusion for as long as I can remember. It’s Dutch, though I have always lived in Australia. My family has a Maltese, German and Dutch background, and as my father’s side is German and Dutch, my surname ended up being a hang over from a very popular name in Holland. As popular as Smith. However in Australia, I am over of the very few with this name.

    Juice, Juicey, Goosey, José…I’ve had it all since I started school. The correct pronunciation is Joe-see in Australian, but in Dutch it would resemble some as Yo-seh or Yoss.

    I’ve never felt like it defines me, considering I have very few ties to Germany & Holland. I was born here, never been to Europe and may never go there. I’m Australian.


    • What an interesting surname you have. When I first saw it, I don’t know why but I immediately thought of the name “Jan” – which some pronounce as “Yan/Yawn” and others as how you would pronounce it in English. So I was guessing your name sounds a bit like how everyone says “Yoshi” 😀

      But that is a good point. Different cultures pronounce names differently. Akin to your surname, the Spanish have their own way of pronouncing Mabel – Mahhh-belle.


  26. Fantastic blog, Mabel, such a nice read. Unlike many in my generation, I don’t have an English name, just my Chinese name. Yeah, it was a bit embarrassing when people pronounced it wrong, hazard wild guesses and can’t remember time after time, but it’s something I cherish now I’m older. I would never change my name even if I was offered a lot of money. It’s the respect I have for my parents.

    However, my younger brother (born in the UK) has an English name and Chinese name. He goes by his English name, and only Chinese name for official documents. He went through an embarrassing time finishing school, applying for uni, interviews, etc because everything displays his Chinese name. He dislikes it so much he hates even just saying it aloud. I do hope it’s an immature mentality thing, and he doesn’t change his name when he’s legally able to.

    We might not all love our given names, but respect to the namer/s and yourself trumps embarrassment!

    P.S. My primary school teacher’s name was and still is Miss Bogie! 🙂


    • “It’s the respect I have for my parents.” That is such an interesting way to put it. Names and respect. I think it’s rooted in the way we were brought up. Honour your name, honour your family – that’s a saying I heard somewhere, some point.

      Sorry to hear that your brother had a hard time with his name. I think a lot of the time we just want to fit in. Perhaps we might not like our given name because we feel that it doesn’t fit our personality.

      Miss Bogie is a great name 🙂


  27. I can understand the struggle many migrants to Australia have in this area when they are of a non-English heritage. In my time at university, overseas students – many of them Asian in origin – would take English names to better fit in and avoid the awkward situations you describe. (When I say English, I mean names common in English-speaking countries, not that they are necessarily English in origin.)

    On the other hand, I also remember a few who revert to their given Chinese names after a time, particularly when they have friends who learn to pronounce it properly. I remember being confused at the 21st birthday party of a church friend because I only ever knew her by her Chinese name, yet her school friends at the party kept calling her by her English name, which I didn’t know of at the time.

    For me, I have a slightly different issue with my name in that because of my Mauritian heritage my family/surname is made up of three names, so it’s caused endless headaches with official forms and school roll calls, etc, even though I have an English first name, because invariably only the last bit of my surname is mistakenly treated as my family name and the rest of it my middle name. ‘Bzzt! Wrong! Here, got five minutes? Let me explain…’

    Regarding Ka Law’s brother disliking his Chinese name, I can understand where he’s coming from, but I find ‘hate’ to be rather strong. Though I wouldn’t use mine in regular conversation, I rather like it because it means ‘New Hope’. That’s right, Star Wars Episode IV! (: I don’t really like my first name – seems it’s used too often for losers and jerks as characters’ names in fiction – but it’s the name my parents gave me so I wouldn’t change it. Not to mention I couldn’t imagine being called anything else.

    Two of my cousins, while they have English first names, are primarily known by their Chinese names (even though for one of them it’s been anglicised a smidge in its pronunciation and spelling) even though they were also born in UK and moved to Sydney too.


    • It’s fascinating to hear how people can go by two names and don’t seem to mind, as in the case of your church friend. It reminds me of quite a few of my Chinese friends in Singapore: we went to school together and I called them by my Chinese names. But these days on Facebook, I see them refer to themselves by Western names and they seem to prefer them (keeping in mind they are still living in Singapore).

      Sorry to hear that you were given a hard time for your name back in school. It is funny to see how so many can assume each of us have a one-word first name and one last name when in fact, our first and/or last names can be made up of two words or more. We live in such a diverse world, but then again, some might not have had the opportunity to come across such diverse names.

      ‘New Hope’. That is a very nice meaning to your name. It sounds very upbeat and positive, and hope it matches your personality.


  28. I have an Asian name and I’ve thought about this for a while, and I think it’s something that all immigrants should keep and be proud of. I always wondered why every other ethnicity including Europeans, Japanese, Southeastern Asians, and Indians didn’t really change their first name, but Chinese and Koreans did (I’m Korean). Some of those other names are just as hard to pronounce and learn, yet they keep them and are proud of them.

    Should everyone change their name to Johns or Susans to make it easier for the people already living here to learn? For me keeping my Asian name is a very important part of my identity and a tie to my cultural roots. Why the hell should anyone change their name for other people to have an easier time remembering it and throw away part of your identity and culture. Just because I’m a Korean in America doesn’t mean I’m now fully American. That’s the beautiful thing about America is that it doesn’t expect you to throw away your old old culure, it embraces it and encourages you to bring it along. Yet many feel the need to adopt these American/Western names to fit in. Yes, as you mentioned, there are inconveniences and struggles. But I think that’s part of the path of an Asian in America (in your case Australia).

    Even with an American name, growing up as an Asian in another country will have its struggles with identity and questions like where does my Asian culture fit into all of this and how do I fit into this new culture? And answering those questions is part of growing up, maturing, and finding your identity, both personally and culturally. Making that process slightly easier by having a Western name while trading a big part of your cultural identity in my eyes is definitely not worth it. Of course there are many people that are given their western names at birth and really have no reason to change it, but for those that have a non-American/non-Western name and are thinking about changing it, I think you should consider the benefits to keeping your name.

    I was watching a video of Ki Hong Lee who quoted Uzo Aduba in an interview with Seth Meyers saying that she (Uzo) wanted to change her name when she was young and went to her mom, who promptly said that if people can learn Tchaikovsky, Dostoyevsky, and Michelangelo, they can learn your name. And Ki Hong adds in the video that you don’t have to change your name for anyone. You can just be yourself. And make then learn your name. If you’re good enough and talented enough, people will learn your name no matter how hard it is, and that in itself is satisfaction.


    • Agree with what you’ve said here, Jay. There certainly are some of us who change out name to a simpler one, and it is seemingly only for the reason so others can pronounce it better and we don’ get laughed at. Personally I think if someone laughs at a name, they are being insensitive to cultural differences around them (or maybe they are simply naive).

      Changing our name to a common Western one, we are downplaying our culture and also unconsciously presuming that cultural diversity is not an asset in this world. Good on you for keeping your name, and I hope that more and more Asian Americans do so as well. I’ve heard racism still exists in America (then again so long as there are cultural differences there will always be some form of racism) but not to the extent in Australia.

      Love last example you used at the end of your comment. Goes to show that Western names can be complex too, and unfamiliar and unique to many. We don’t have to be famous to own our identity. We just have to be us and proud of it, and so own our name.


  29. I think whatever the name is, one should accept it right away, because our name carries with it the special memory at the time of our birth, and a unique name also gives you different feel. All words are yours, but i feel them too. Well done.


    • You are right. Our name has a special memory – it is special. We may not know it, but it is when others question our name, a lot of the time we usually are defensive of it in some way.

      Thank you, thank you, so much for your support as always, Shreyans. I can only hope to write fiction as good as you some day.

      Liked by 1 person

  30. Great piece. I grew up in Malaysia, back when everyone was jumping on the English name bandwagon and choosing their own names. I never bothered coming up with an English name for myself, and still go by my Chinese name at work, but chose an English pen name for my blog. Go figure.


  31. I enjoyed reading your article and the comments made here. I have always felt that someone’s name was important. It is connected to our identity and the future person we are growing into being. When I meet someone new I always say their name back to them and ask, “Did I pronounce your name correctly?” If the person says no then I say, “I want to say your name correctly. Can you please tell me again?” My goal is to show respect and honor the person’s name. There are so many different names from different languages around the world I know that I will not get each person’s name right the first time. But I can communicate that it matters to me to say each person’s name the way he or she wants it, not the way I want it.
    You have a great blog.


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