By: Dorothy Luting Wang
My full name is Dorothy Luting Wang. I was born in the US to Chinese immigrants. My parents decided to give me an English first name “for the sake of people calling your name. We live here; we have to adjust to the culture”. To their credit, I have never had anyone mispronounce my first name (in the US). I avoided telling people my middle name, knowing it would open a whole other discussion I might not be ready to have. You can survive without telling others your middle name. My family name is another issue.
The closest approximation of my family name, 王 (Wáng- Mandarin), in US Standard English is /wäːŋ/ with the “a” in calm, or father. If you study linguistics, this vowel is called the PALM vowel. (It’s also the long “a” in British English.) But for Americans, it is almost always interpreted as “/wæŋ/”, with the “a” pronounced as a TRAP vowel like hang or rang.
Growing up, I never corrected anyone on the pronunciation of my last name. I was mocked for it, sure. But instead of correcting other people, I felt a sort of shame that my name was synonymous with a vulgar slang work.
Four and a half years ago, I left the United States. For the first time, I was in a country where people pronounced my name correctly, on the first try, without me saying anything. It took me a few months, but eventually I had this moment of clarity where I realized that this is what my life should have been like all along. There was no split second of discomfort, no feeling of shame. People should have been pronouncing my name correctly from the very beginning; I could have been living my whole life in a world where my name was pronounced correctly, where that was normal. I never realized that it was something that I was lacking, or that I had the power to change- that I could have simply corrected my teachers. What is it about living as a second generation Chinese American that made me feel like I didn’t have that power to ask my peers to pronounce my name the way it should have been pronounced?
I am an ESL teacher and I very adamantly tell my students not to change their names to more English friendly ones. Names are a very important part of who we are; they truly are us. When somebody mispronounces your name, or refuses to call you by that name, or gives you a new name/nickname without your explicit consent- that is a deep form of disrespect to your persons.
It’s about time I started to practice what I preached.
There are 100 million other people with the surname “Wang”. So if you’re reading this and you’re one of them- Hey, you don’t have to accept your name being mispronounced. And if you are comfortable doing so, gently correct the people in your life. Same goes for the rest of you who have let others mispronounce your name. It’s easy to just be resigned to the way others pronounce your name, and honestly, if you’re okay with that, or you don’t have the energy, then it is not my place to tell you what to do, or that you should change. However, you can also live in a world where your name is pronounced correctly- it’s possible, it should be normalized, and it’s what you deserve.
Dorothy, in her own words: Hi. I’m just your typical English school teacher gaijin living in Yokohama/Tokyo. I’m also an ABC (American Born Chinese) and RPCV (Returned Peace Corps Volunteer).