To Try Or Not To Try: Butchering Unusual Names

I am irritated. Someone butchered my name. I am trying to decide if I’d rather they try to, and fail or ask me for help first. Perhaps my irritation lies in the energy with which he committed this crime.  He’s another fellow immigrant, I deduce this detail from his accent; I think I should cut him some slack. Then I think to myself…No! He of all people should know better. Sure, that’s a gross assumption.

But seriously, his butchering of all my names resounded in the waiting room, and while it lasted, I had flashbacks of snickering, pointing children. Would I have preferred that he spell out my name instead? Calling for a K-u-u-k-u-a. Perhaps my irritation continued because he was so cocky about it too. As if to say: I am an immigrant, I betcha I can say this one!

I was so irritated I didn’t have the usual grace to explain to him that the double ‘u’ in the first half of the name was not stressed necessarily or that the ‘k’ in my last name was silent because Westerners often couldn’t muster the nasal sound that was required for anything close to an accurate pronunciation. To top it off, he tried saying it multiple times before giving my irritated self a chance to come to his aid. Arrgh!

“Next time you come, I’ll get it right!” he proclaimed emphatically as he repeated the name once again in its entirety, determined to get it right.

Maybe it boils down to just plain attitude. Maybe if he hadn’t been cocky about his mispronunciation, I wouldn’t have been upset and gotten so irked.

Funnily enough, I don’t feel any of the general irritation of wanting to change my name to the non-African-sounding Lyall or Elliott or LeMaire or Riby-Williams that make up my family tree; this used to be my auto response in the past.

**********

Looking back on the moment now a month later, I can have some perspective and empathy. I have also had moments when I’ve felt so sure about the pronunciation of an African last name only to have been proven wrong when I finally met the owner of the name. Maybe that was what happened to the guy.

So which is better? Trying to say it and then totally messing it up, or asking how to say it and attempting to repeat it as correctly as possible? Nothing irks me more than those who after asking for help (more than once) in saying it then proceed to laugh loudly and nervously, throw their hands up in the air helplessly and inform me that they wouldn’t try it even if they had Rosetta Stone sounding it out phonetically for them. The sadder issue for me is that this latter crowd is often comprised of my non-immigrant Black brothers and sisters. Almost as if getting it right would reveal some residual knowledge of Africa. It leaves me speechless. If this is the case, why did you bother asking me to say it so many times for you to begin with? SMH.

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5 comments

  1. Whew, I hear you, and it’s only my last name that gives people trouble! But I recognize all the reactions you describe: the “oh why try, I’ll never get it, haha” and the “I’ve definitely got it now: [says it wrong]” to the weird and incorrect sounding-out. I think it boils down to attitude too. I’d rather have a sincere, humble butchering than a cocky person who gets it right and then wants to boast about how much Chinese he knows!

    Here’s where “unusual” names come in handy: Erik and I always use his mom’s Safeway club card, because no one can tell that we’re not Pi-Kuei. 😉 Mostly the cashiers see that and just say “thank you, Mr” or “Ms Lee”!

  2. I can understand your feelings, KK. The situation here is even worse where people butcher and mutilate names of others from other ethnic origins in the country; and this is even perpetrated by newscasters/newsreaders on TV! It can be so embarrasing, I tell you.

  3. Thanks for visiting and following my blog! I have a last name which is very easy to say phonetically (Loo – on- go), but many people want to add an extra letter to it, etc. There was a player on our hockey teams a few years ago with the same last name so that helped…LOL! How do you pronounce your name?

    • Hi!
      Thanks for visiting and commenting. Koo-kwa gi-bor-di Yo-me-pey is how i usually spell it for folks.
      I love your poetry so far. I didn’t stay long because I need to return to my thesis which is due in 10 days.
      That’s why I followed so I could come back. Keep writing!

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