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/lìtíng, 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.
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.
Nicknames. Name-calling. Sometimes they’re funny. Sometimes offensive. And other times we have mixed feelings about them.
Nicknames take on some kind of character or thing. Recently at work, my colleague Julien added to my long list of nicknames. Coming over to my desk one afternoon, boisterous Julien said, “Since you love monkeys so much, I’ll call you Cheeky Monkey Mabel. Cheeky Monkey!” I looked up from my desk, wondering if he was serious. And if the name would stick.
When we know someone well, we might give them a nickname out of friendship or love. Nicknames liven up the day, and sometimes it’s why we call each other by nicknames. When I shuffle through the office door in the mornings, eyes semi-closed, it’s actually quite entertaining to hear Julien chirpily say and smirk, “How is Cheeky Monkey today?”
In this world made up of so many cultures, there are countless of us non-Caucasians who have Western first and last names. But there are times when some assume we go by “exotic” names if we aren’t Caucasian. If we’re dark-skinned, some might think we’re a Muhammad or Suresh. If we’re Asian, our first and last names might be Lee or Nguyen.