Learn My Name, It's Not That Hard

My full first name is Emiko. In Japan, it’s a relatively common, slightly older name that means “beautiful blessed child.” My grandpa gave me the name to honor my (one quarter) Japanese heritage. In a sea of names that look and sound like mine, Emiko wouldn’t stand out, but here in America, my name has a whole other string of meanings.


I’ve never really gone by Emiko. Besides the fact that my parents called me the shortened “Emi” as a child (which I still go by today), teachers, friends, and strangers alike struggle with the full, five letter minefield of a name. When someone sees my name on paper, the letters immediately spell out something more than how to address me. People see un-American, foreign, something other and assume they won’t be able to pronounce it. My curly brown hair and pale skin further distort their perception of me.


I first learned that my name would lead to all sorts of little complications in elementary school. Attendance (especially as a shy kid who rarely spoke up in class) was a nightmare. My heartbeat would predictably rise as the teacher drew closer and closer to the middle of the alphabet where my name was destined to be butchered. I’d watch closely as the teacher breezed through “normal” name after name. Finally, I’d see the teacher’s face contort in sympathetic concentration, and I’d know it was my turn.


“I just go by Emi,” I’d blurt out, hopefully before they’d have a chance to give their best attempt. If I was lucky, the teacher would have me spell it and move on. If I was not so fortunate, they’d know Japanese. In this case, a clunky conversation would ensue in the middle of attendance. I’d hear about how the instructor spent two years in Japan and some quirky anecdote about how they bonded with the  locals. If there’s one thing more humiliating for a shy kid than talking in class, it’s having an adult try to bond with you over a country you’ve never visited. Attendance became a regular part of the drill for me––learning to patiently walk adults through the spelling and ignoring the snickering from my classmates. I got better at it over the years, but it still doesn’t feel completely natural to me, even now.


Attendance was predictable, but that didn’t mean my troubles were over. At my middle school, we had a program called AR (Advanced Reading) that gave kids points for reading books and taking tests on their knowledge. If you read the most books that month, you’d get your name posted on a little bulletin board outside of the library. In the March of seventh grade (yes, I still remember it), I placed 5th on the AR board. My pride didn’t even last a full day, as the school secretary read our names to the whole school over the crackly PA system:


“Fifth Place: Emiko Grant”


Only, she didn’t say Emiko like how I say it, she said “Em-Mike-O”. Suddenly my little Japanese name morphed into some sort of middle-aged dad name for the whole school to hear. My cheeks flushed, and although she moved on without a pause, I felt like the whole stopped school to stare, point, and laugh at me. With the blood draining totally out of my face, I realized that my full name would be out there in the open for the entire month of April, reminding everybody that I wasn’t “normal”.


While this is, of course, a tiny injustice in the greater scheme of things, I held on to that little memory to this day. Sometimes I wonder if she tried to say my name (really, that was her best shot?) or if she even cared enough to do it. Yes, I think I have finally recovered from that incident, but it took one tiny mispronunciation to turn recognition into total humiliation for my seventh-grade brain.


Of course, my real issue is not with the secretary of my old middle school. She wasn’t out to get me, and neither were any of the teachers who have ever thoroughly mispronounced my name. This is a cultural problem. When we (as Americans) see a name that we deem “foreign” (not white, essentially), we decide it is too complicated for us to grasp. If we do bother to even try, we put all the work on that person. Our names communicate vital information about us and it can be profoundly damaging to know that peers and teachers don’t care enough to respect this piece of core identity.


Uzoamaka Aduba (known best for “Orange is the New Black”) shares a similar sentiment with her name. Growing up in a small, New England community, Uzoamaka asked her mother to call her Zoe because “nobody can say Uzoamaka.” Rather than complying, her mother simply said, “if they can learn to say Tchaikovsky, and Michelangelo, and Dostoevsky than they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”


In more recent years, this sentiment has rung more and more true for me. Rather than letting people off the hook with a “close enough”––something I did all the time just a few years ago––I make an effort to correct people. Though I go by Emi in my daily life, I won’t let go of the essential part of me that lies in my full name. In reclaiming my name, I establish that I, too, am worth remembering.


Of course, the question is now: how do we change the way we think about names? An American cultural problem seems like a far too daunting task for one person, but there are plenty of little ways we can shift our worldview. The first is a simple shift in language. Words like “exotic” about a person’s name sound like a compliment on the surface level, but it really communicates that the name sounds foreign or almost un-American. skipping this little comment can reduce the feeling of otherness or alienation for those of us with “unique” names. Similarly, taking the time to learn the correct pronunciation of someone’s name expresses a sincere effort. Especially for those in education (or other places of power), taking these few minutes communicates to students that we all deserve the dignity of being called our right name. Though these shifts in language are tiny (and take mere minutes from the day) they have the power to change what we view as American.