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What’s In a Name?

Oh Joy! What's in a Name?
Oh Joy! What's in a Name?

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 🙂

P.S. Great videos on this topic by Uzo Aduba and @navthepoet

50 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing! Especially since it’s Coco’s birthday, I’d be interested to learn how you chose to name her Coco Cho 🙂

  2. This is such a great post! I also have struggled my entire life with people mispronouncing my name. I was born in South Korea and adopted at the age of three. My (adoptive) parents changed my name from my Korean name but Misha (and a very French middle name and Polish last name) was still difficult. Teachers would pause every time they had to pronounce it on the first day of school. People spell it wrong (adding a C). One kid in school told me how well my name “fit me”; but Misha is Russian and I am Korean! ??‍♀️ And even as an adult, my mother in law STILL pronounces my name incorrectly. I’ve been married for 10 years. My husband confronted her years ago about the fact she pronounced it incorrectly (she says my name with an I sound instead of an E sound) and she simply said, “well, it’s spelled with an I,” and acted like there was nothing wrong. Anyways, love this post! ?

  3. I have a Spanish first name and had a Polish last name and they both were not spelled how you would say them and i grew up dreading school the same way. It was especially insulting when people would ask if I was sure I spelled it correctly. Like, really?! I too go by a nickname that my mother gave me so most people don’t know my real name.

  4. I am Thai and I wish my parents would have given me a Thai name. They decided on a very American name, Jennifer and then changed to Jamie when I was born. Great post. I have always felt something was missing because I wasn’t given a Thai name.

  5. My first name is Yiddish, my last name decidedly not Jewish (though I am Jewish). No one ever pronounces my first name correctly unless they’re Jewish and several times Jewish acquaintances misheard my last name and turned it into a Jewish last name. Messing up my first name always annoyed me and then we went and named our oldest and youngest with names that people always screw up. I told my first that it’s a good lesson for her to learn to speak up for herself and she has absolutely taken it to heart and has no fear in correcting people. Makes me proud every time she does it!

  6. This made me laugh for several reasons. First off, not that it’s a competition but my last name is easily mispronounced as “Ballsack” So… take that! LOL Second, my sister in law is Thai. I have no idea how to correctly and phonetically spell her name in English but it basically means Lady of the jungle and she always jokingly says she wants to kill her mother because of it. Her nickname growing up was May thus she made up an English name that could then justify her nickname and that’s what she’s legally called now that she’s an American after marrying my brother and going though the very long processes of getting her citizenship. Anyway, as much as she criticizes her own name, she loves to tell me the very Thai names she wants to name her children. The funny thing is is that I grew up between Puerto Rico and Maryland and in Maryland I always remember the first day of school and how all the Vietnamese girls would say their birth name and then their American name. And so I always think of what her kids will have to do when they go to school. I gently told her the story before I don’t think she caught on. Really, I just don’t say anything just let her be and let her enjoy her dreams. I still think they’re beautiful names, it’s just that I know what it is to have a name that so very hard to pronounce in America. She’s always been known as May here in the states so she has no idea what it means to be a (insert culture her) American and the struggles that come with it. I love her and especially love all the little Thai quirks that she’s brought to our family. She’s only recently started to cook Puerto Rican food and my brother greatly appreciates it Haha!

  7. I’m a first-gen Mexican-American and my parents gave me a German first name. I can’t tell you how much I was teased and how often it was butchered growing up. I thought Vilma was ugly, even if they loved it, and it made me feel (in middle and high school especially) like I must be ugly too. I also dreaded roll calls. It wasn’t until I began on-campus recruiting for internships and jobs in college that I was grateful that my name was atypical, which in turn made it more memorable. Today, I embrace it and I will correct you politely as many times as it takes until you say my name correctly.
    I could feel the hurt and healing in your story; it resonated with me. Thank you for sharing it.

  8. Thanks Vilma for sharing! It’s such a strange thing how our feelings about our names and our heritage evolves as we get older and more confident of ourselves. So glad you’re full embracing it now!
    Joy

  9. Hi Jamie,
    Thank you for sharing….the grass is always greener for sure! All the kids with very Asian names who just wanted American names and vice versa!
    Joy

  10. Hi Lindsay,
    Thanks for your note! It was just a name we liked..it wasn’t planned or anything since our first daughter has the name I had planned for a while 😉
    Our kids have bot Thai and Korean names but it was too much to add to their formal given names so they are more nicknames for them.
    Joy

  11. Love this! I always make it a point to ask my new acquaintances how to pronounce their name. I feel better about building relationships that way!

  12. Thank you for this.
    As a kid in the 80s & 90s, I could never find my name on those pre-personalized souvenir license plates, pens, or notepads in gift shops. I would always look and somewhat wish I had a common American girl name like Jennifer, Michelle or Alison so I could have my name on something! Such a small thing but I remember that feeling of not being seen or recognized somehow.
    I would often say, “Olivia like Olivia Newton-John” to adults. By the time I was in college, I learned to love my unique name.
    Now my name is one of the most common baby girls’ names in the US. Ha!

  13. Uffff, you have no idea how I can relate! My parents come from the Dominican Republic and they seem to create some pretty exotic names. They like to combine names with relatives names mine being Ydilia( first name) Bencosme( last name) I HATE introducing myself and I despised first days of school? such bad memories

  14. Thank you for this blog post because I can see that I am not alone. I was born in the Philippines on Assumption Day and named Asuncion after the religious holiday. I struggled with that name when we moved to America when I was 7. It’s hard for kids for teachers to pronounce my name let alone kids. Some kids they have grown to like their names but it hasn’t changed for me.

  15. My dear hubby immigrated from Taiwan to America at age 13, and changed his first name to an American name because “it sounded good”, he said. His story is very much like yours. And his parents still call him by his birth name. Great story, thanks for sharing Joy.

  16. Joy, we are twinsies! My birth name is Rizaley Joy Castro. Rizaley was my parents’ first names put together. Filipinos parents love to put their names together to make new names for their kids lol. I too, always dreaded the first day of school since no one ever got my name right. So, I always went by Joy…..and later in life when I got married, I too dropped my first name and made Joy my legal first name. Like you, I also kept my maiden name as my new legal middle name and of course my married name (Blanc) as my new last name. I’ve been married over 10 years now, but in the early days it would be funny whenever I had to call a company and look up information on an old account…they’d ask me my name and I’d say Joy Blanc, but then they’d say “For that account, we have Rizaley Castro listed,” and I’d have to be like “Oh yes, thats me too.” Haha!

  17. Thank you for sharing the story about your name—it resonated so much with me. I moved to the US from Thailand when I was 12. I immediately wanted an “American” first name so I could fit in with the rest of the kids in my class. Never mind the fact that no one could pronounce my last name, which had 13 letters. When I got my American citizenship, I decided to shorten my last name (to 6 letters). Then when I got married, since I didn’t have a middle name, I kept my maiden name as my middle name and took on my husband’s Hispanic last name. People still regularly mispronounce my first and last names, but now I just find it amusing that people are very confused at my ethnically confusing name ?

  18. I identify with everything you say. Bravo. Even though my maiden name was not hard to pronounce it was unusual, common enough in Yorkshire No where else in England. And no one asked how to pronounce it either (why don’t they?) if I corrected them they appeared not to listen. Also, how do people manage to spell it in so many different ways when it is actually spelt phonetically? It has had one benefit, I always ask how to pronounce names I am not familiar with and insist that everyone has the right to be called the name of their own choosing!
    Ironically though my married name is Hopkins and I did not keep my maiden name in any form, many people leave the S off – what’s that about?

  19. Thank you for sharing. My name was suppose to Be Bianca Jasmine Supuveda (sup-uv-e-da) why my name was changed because my grandmother didn’t like the name Bianca so my mom changed it to Jasmine Crystal Justiniano. I know it’s a mouth full, but I’ve gotten over it, and I’m glad my name isn’t Bianca, only because I don’t look like a Bianca. Supuveda came from my Grandfather but when he came over from Puerto Rico he changed his last name to Justiniano (Justin-I-ano). If you look at me I’m just an upstate white girl. My mom was Puerto Rican. So that’s where all the Spanish heritage came from.

  20. Hi Catherine!
    Isn’t it all so funny what people choose to see or say or not see and say? I do think/hope that people are getting better about it!
    Thank you for sharing!
    Joy

  21. it’s kinda crazy how badly people still have issues pronouncing or even spelling names.. love the post and love you! happy to share the cho name with you! 🙂

  22. I’m Latina and have a very American first name but a very Spanish last name. When people see me (I look very Latina) they want to pronounce my first name in a very “Spanish” way and totally mispronounce it and transform it into a totally different name. I hate it. I wish people would not only take the time to learn how to pronounce someone’s name but also not make judgements on how to pronounce a name by the way people look. Thank you for this post <3

  23. That teacher that made the effort to say your name correctly … that’s just amazing! I wish every teacher made this effort! My legal first name is Korean name. And all through elementary school, my teachers said how beautiful my name is. And that made me appreciate my heritage, even though i really did want blonde hair and blue eyes for a long time. But when i went to jr high, i had this horrible teacher who mispronounced my name and refused to be corrected. Even when friends tried to correct her, she ignored them. To be in the 8th grade and have the teacher butcher it for the entire school year….. i was never so humiliated in my life. I still remember this teacher and i wish i could tell her how disrespectful she was back then.
    thank you for sharing this story.

  24. I appreciate this post so much. My name is Justina, which, on face value, is a pretty simple name. Unfortunately, almost everyone calls me Justine until I correct them. It might seem like a simple difference, but my name is really important to me. It connects me to the Portuguese part of myself and to the great aunt I was named after. It’s so simple to make sure you are addressing someone correctly. A few times, I’ve gotten emails from coworkers acknowledging that they used the wrong name (it happens in emails all the time) and apologizing. I always appreciate that so much.

  25. Hi Joy, this was a wonderful post. I completely empathize. I never wanted to be American because my parents wanted to ensure that we knew who we were and where we came from, Ghanaian and Ghana, even though we were born in NYC. Having a Ghanaian name I went through that whole first day of school thing all those years as well. and so did many of my international friends. I was adamant that they get my name right because my father instilled in us a pride about our names. He lived Ghana pre and post colonialism when students were forced take an English or Biblical name to enroll in schools. He and many of his contemporaries dropped their English names in the Atlantic Ocean on the journey to America. My father gave my brothers and me Ghanaian names. Our motto was if folks can pronounce “Krajewski” like “Scheschefsky” than they need to stop being lazy and pronunce our names which were shorter and had English phonetics.
    I am happy that now at least some people will ask how a name is pronounced and that there is such a diversity of names now and some people are more sensitive to pronouncing kids names correctly.

  26. I love this so much! My name is Nicolette and people always ask if I go by Nicole or Nikky and I always reply with a “nope” ?

  27. Hi Megan,
    I’m SO sorry to hear that.
    Thankfully teachers I had were never disrespectful, but I also made it easy for everyone to go by my nickname which I regret in hindsight.
    All of the teachers I know now always try and be very aware of names so let’s hope that’s the case for our future generations!
    I know your Korean name is so beautiful!
    Joy

  28. I grew up with a slightly less common first name as well and dealt with all of the annoying things like teachers insisting my name was a typo or refusing to learn to say it properly (I had teachers who spent all year calling me Karen or Tara or Terry or Turan or Tyrone despite my repeated corrections) or asking, “what kind of name is that anyhow?!?”
    But judging by the experience of my third grader, things are just not the same anymore. He goes to a fairly diverse public school and his classmates have all kinds of different names that I certainly never heard growing up in America. I’ve volunteered in his school quite a bit and talked to him about this- it really seems like the kids just do not make fun of each other for their names anymore. The teachers seem to learn to correctly pronounce everyone’s name- honestly I think they get special training on this nowadays. I imagine this would be part of any reasonable cultural sensitivity training. It honestly seems like a non-issue.
    Don’t get me wrong, the kids make fun of each other for plenty of other stuff! It just seems like it doesn’t occur to them to make fun of names, possibly just because most of the kids have such a wide variety of names. Probably a lot of this is the teacher setting the example of respectfully learning to say everyone’s name properly.

  29. Hi Tarynkay!
    I agree, things have changed a lot since we grew up and seems like it’s more common for our kids these days.
    Thanks for sharing your story and your beautiful name!
    Joy

  30. I’m a Thai-American with a similarly long name — had such a similar experience growing up.
    I recently saw the Key & Peele substitute teacher skit — you should watch it. I wished I could have seen it as a kid! Would have changed my whole perspective on having a “difficult” name.

  31. My maiden name is Tso and it was never pronounced correctly. When I got married I was so thankful to finally have an easy name that people are familiar with (Brady, The Brady Bunch).
    Nope, I’ve heard Brahdy, Bradley, Braedly….
    My first name is Lydia and somehow people can’t pronounce that either🤷‍♀️

    1. Hi Lydia! It just goes to show you that with ALL names (not just ones that may seem foreign to others) that we all can try better to get someone’s name right!

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