I was born Nantaka Joy Deangdeelert. It’s pretty much the most Thai name you could have…soooo many letters! Nantaka means “Happy Lady”, Joy is actually a very common Thai nickname (Thai people are often given shorter nicknames since our first names tend to be long), and Deangdeelert means “Red, good, and luck.” It’s a name with so much meaning yet it was a name that I struggled with my whole childhood.
I would DREAD the first day of school every year. That moment when the teacher would call my name for the first time…where they would have no idea how to say it. It would come out like “Man-taka Dingleberry” or “Nanataka Dingledirt” or so many other crazy versions that I dreaded hearing because I ultimately knew I would correct them and mostly likely, they still wouldn’t get it right. So every year, on the first day of school (soon after they would see my name for the first time), I resigned to telling everyone to just call me “Joy”. It was my middle name and so it felt totally fine—almost like giving permission to call me by my nickname.
In hindsight, I wish I had stayed true to my real first name and continued to correct anyone who said my name wrong. But in those moments where I wanted to be American SO badly, I needed the ease and the acceptance to be called a name that didn’t cause disruption or confusion. I had ONE teacher in all of my 21 years of schooling (through college) who refused to “just call me Joy” and made it a point to call me by the name I was given. And, he always made sure to say it correctly. I didn’t’ realize it then—but looking back on that time—it really meant so much. He made an effort that most people don’t. I realize now how often people never tried to pronounce my family’s name correctly—when they met us in-person as strangers, when telemarketers called our house, or when reading our name out loud somewhere. They were so quick to butcher it and not ask how to pronounce it.
When I got married, my maiden name changed to my middle name and Cho became my last name. I changed Joy to my official first name then since I had already used it my whole life and now I was Joy Deangdeelert Cho. Now, having a MUCH shorter name of Joy Cho, you would think it would be a no-brainer to say. But I can’t tell you how many times Cho changes to Chow, Choi, Choy or Chung.
As our world expands everyday, I try to remember that everyone’s name is a part of who they are, whether it’s their given name or the name that a person has chosen later in life. If you’ve ever been in a situation where you are unsure how to say someone’s name, it is okay (and even respectful) to ask how to pronounce a name. Or, you can even ask what name they prefer to go by. And then follow through with effort just the same as you would like for your own name!
My Dad, to this day, always calls me Nantaka 🙂