Putting a Name to a Face

“It’s Kyle Lu, right? There must be a typo on the attendance sheet?”

This confusion has been a trend my entire life. Growing up, if teachers didn’t explicitly express that my name was spelled wrong, they would mispronounce it as “Lu,” despite the “i” at the end of the name. This mispronunciation happened because they ascribed a more stereotypically Asian sounding name to me based on my appearance. However, underneath this mispronunciation is an erased history of colonialism—specifically, the British colonization of Hong Kong.

According to how it is pronounced in either Mandarin or Cantonese, my last name is pronounced as if it is spelled “Lei” in English. In Chinese, the name means “thunder.” However, when the British colonized Hong Kong through military force in 1841, they Romanized Chinese names, meaning that they used the Latin alphabet to write Chinese in order to make it easier to be spoken and written by foreigners. In effect, Romanization of Chinese makes the pronunciation of spoken Chinese intelligible to non-Chinese speakers. Additionally, English was also used as the medium of instruction in most schools in Hong Kong during the colonial period, and English teachers would often prefer that Chinese students adopt an assigned English name for the teachers’ convenience. By this process, my family name was Romanized to barely resemble its original pronunciation. Its pronunciation now more resembles the common British name “Louie” or the French King Louie. The etymology behind my name is just one example of the way that names, and the changing of names, can be a symbolic product of power dynamics.

My inability to feel comfortable with my surname is connected to colonial history and the erasure of that history. The purpose of Chinese Romanization was to provide a method for foreigners who were not skilled at recognizing Chinese script to read and recognize Chinese. This has left a long-lasting ripple in my family for generations.

My name and its mispronunciation epitomize my racial experience growing up. I attempted to blend in, but because of my name and because I look Asian, I never could. The reading of my name as foreign also bled into other experiences I had in school. Growing up as the only Asian American student in my middle school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan was extremely difficult. Despite the Westernization of my name, it still stood out from the rest of the attendance sheet. Year after year, new teachers would mispronounce my name in the way I previously described, making me feel like a perpetual foreigner in my class.

In kindergarten, the school psychologist threw out the egg in my packed lunch assuming it was rotten because of its brown color, when it only had been boiled in tea. Teachers often announced my test scores to the rest of the class, singling me out as an example when all I wanted to do was fit in, even while other White students would receive the same test scores as me. Students jokingly asked if I ate dog for dinner. Names can be a marker of difference, and despite the colonial influence that altered my family’s name, I still was ostracized for my appearance and cultural background.

This urge to alter Chinese names for English pronunciation convenience is still perpetuated today and also manifests itself as xenophobia. For example, in 2015, a Texas lawmaker suggested in a hearing that Asian Americans should adopt names that are “easier for Americans to deal with” at the polls. This suggested that Asian Americans would have an easier time voting in elections if they changed their name, implying that they would literally need to alter a part of their identity to attain the basic right to vote. Additionally, her words sent the message that diversity, including diversity of names, is not welcome in America. By extension, she suggested that Asian Americans are foreigners without a place in the US, and are unentitled to civic rights if they refuse to assimilate.

Additionally, in 2017, a week after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that heavily restricted immigration to the US, multiple nametags of students with East Asian names were torn off doors in the dorms at Columbia University. In an article published in the Columbia Spector, a member of the University’s Asian American Alliance said that the act was intended to divide Asians and Asian Americans. The student implied that individuals with East Asian first and last names, rather than Asian Americans who have American first names, had been specifically targeted. Given that this occurred within a week of Trump’s executive order, this event signified the xenophobia that is directed at Asian American students in many academic institutions. It also demonstrates how when Asian names are not Westernized, they can become subject to ostracism.

These examples serve to highlight the underlying notion that Chinese names are expected to conform to English speaking norms. And if not, the discomfort they cause will be enough for White people to encourage a name change, enforced by legal coercion.  The way names are treated has political implications about who is and who is not respected.

A name can encapsulate an incredible amount of history, not only from its culture of origin, but also from other cultures’ legacies of power and influence. Remembering to properly pronounce one’s name is a respectful recognition of the ugly histories that names can reflect. But despite historical attempts to make my name seem less foreign, both the roots of my name and of my culture cannot be taken away from me.

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