On Getting It Wrong
An Unconventional Reflection on Failure and Saying My Name
Phuong T. Vuong
Sandra Cisneros writes as the protagonist Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, “At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver . . .” I’ve been thinking about names a lot lately. Being in a new city, a new graduate program, and meeting people (made more awkward by Zoom), meant facing a barrage of mispronunciations and corrections. Imagine saying, “Hi, I’m Phuong” and being asked your name back, “Fong?” “Phoong?” and even the occasional and bewildering “Phuloong?” Imagine this repeating two to three times. Imagine the entire exchange repeating again with each new encounter. Imagine meeting people as chore, as exercise in patience.
In Vietnamese, my name is as common as “Mary” or “Rachel” in the U.S. When in Viet Nam, my middle name gets appended to my first (Thảo Phương) as way to differentiate me from my cousin and the other Phuongs, because yes, there are many of us. And my last name? My last name comes from a dynasty of kings. The story I know best is their role in making bánh chưng and bánh tét the official New Year’s food. I don’t care for the royal connection, but the point is my name is common. It holds history. It is musical. It is only “different” and “difficult” to some, perhaps you, reader.
Over Zoom, there is nothing to do but accept what is said when power dynamics stop me short of correcting the professor in front of the class. My classmate recently noticed that she and our professor have been mispronouncing my name. I told my classmate bluntly—no one says it right. Oh, she said, sitting back in her seat to take that in. While she seemed sad for me, I was struck by how I have let these constant mispronunciations roll off me. It is not because I don’t love my name, its connection to my culture and history, or its stark refusal of assimilation. It isn’t that I don’t think people should say it correctly or that I’ll mispronounce it for others’ comfort.
I want to think through not how to say my name, not how to ask people to repeat their names, nor why saying people’s names correctly is important. You can listen to some of those tips or thoughts here and here. Beth Nguyen has recently written about her difficult journey with her name and her choice to change it. I am interested in something a little different—what does discomfort with mispronunciation reveal about U.S. thought or society in this moment in time.
I want to be clear upfront, the argument I make by no means excuses bad behavior in the form of mispronouncing names out of disregard or hate. George Perdue, Georgia’s Republican senator, in October mocked Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’s name. I won’t give him the privilege of repeating those remarks here. His words use naming and pronunciation as a tool of othering and subjugation. His words mock. What I am writing about is more subtle, the wrestle with names that require linguistic access to another language to be pronounce correctly. The wrestle with a name that requires failure.
What I want to discuss is the forceful pursuit of me to teach you to say my name. What does this tell us about you and about the role or expectations of names in the U.S.? I think of this experience with B, a fun and out-spoken student from an ethnic studies class I took. One day we walked out of class together, and she asked me if I could repeat my name for her to pronounce it correctly. After saying it multiple times and the typical failures to repeat it, I told her, It’s okay. “No, your name is important,” she insisted. I was thinking, I know, but we were shivering outside in Colorado’s February chill after a three-hour graduate seminar. I internally debated whether to keep playing this game of mispronunciation for her sake or to let her know I was annoyed and tired and just wanted to get on my bus home.
The thing is, I’ve said my name enough times to know how it will be mispronounced. I’ve experienced people getting it right immediately, and 9 out of 10 times, those people speak tonal languages like Mandarin, Cantonese, or Vietnamese. And I’ve also experienced people getting it wrong. Again and again. To insist that I repeat my name for them does not feel like an act of respect and disregards the fact that your request takes up my energy too. It ignores that I do not want to teach you for reasons that are not about my relationship to Vietnamese culture or the importance of naming. It suggests, like B did, that my not wanting to teach you means you should teach me about the value of names. The exchange coerces me to serve your comfort through the symbol of the name, to support your belief that you are truly multicultural.
I am interested in what this tells me about those I speak to. Why do you expect perfection and access to my name? Meanwhile the inability to pronounce these sounds come from the stiff monolingual mouth and throat of American English speakers. Often, multilingual romance language speakers struggle too. Does the accomplishment of saying my name erase your Western tongue? Does it make you more cosmopolitan? Does it help confirm your acceptance into the world, where you expect to flow easily through each encounter?
Meanwhile, my name is already written incorrectly in this language. In Vietnamese, the family name comes first, and my full name is written with diacritic marks to indicate tones. In the U.S., writing Phuong Vuong already stages my name to be said and pronounced incorrectly as it moves from one context to the next. The dominating monolingualism in the U.S. and enforcement of correctness as righteousness veil the ways people are misrecognized. By being blind to misrecognition, by insisting that being right is always possible, the speaker upholds the expectation of English language and American culture as a universal. It denies that there are places you are not prepared to enter. Places to which I do not open doors.
The highlighting of the value of names is comparable to other methods of multicultural inclusion—they point to how some marginalized people gain a seat at the table while the same mechanisms that set their seat apart from others to begin with continue to operate. In other words, by making names the main way of respecting a person, we cover ongoing social and political issues with a veneer of regard or progress. What if your support of universal health care was more important to me than your passing mispronunciation of my name? What if ending wars and colonialism would stop me from needing to have this conversation altogether?
I wonder what can be gained with experiences of failure. Get comfortable with mispronunciation, not to harm others or arrogantly refuse to attempt an unfamiliar name, but as the beginning of self-reflection and exploration of the idea that there are words or sounds that will take commitment from you to begin to get right. Someone may need to learn to speak a tonal language to be able to say my name. I want room for humility and to step away from the universalizing that comes from expecting competency across all realms.
Perhaps acknowledging failure and realizing it comes from not knowing how to speak a tonal language would encourage you to learn. To force your mouth, tongue, even teeth into new shapes. This pause, this reorientation and investment, is much more important than your nagging me to repeat my name. Again.
Warsan Shire writes:
Give your daughters difficult names.
Names that command the full use of the tongue.
My name makes you want to tell me the truth.
My name does not allow me to trust anyone
who cannot pronounce it right.
I won’t be changing my name, which means a lifetime in this North American space of being called by the wrong thing. But this isn’t that different from other ways I am hailed as, considered, the “wrong thing.” I accept this reminder.
And in these shadows, I make something different. If saying a name is how one person respects another person, even constructs someone as a subject, then my accepting your mispronunciation is not a denouncement of my humanity; it is understanding the failure to humanize me. It accepts instead that my humanity is not yours to construct. It keeps my real name out your mouth.
Phuong T. Vuong is a writer and critic from Oakland. She has publications in American Poetry Review, Best American Poetry, The Asian American Writers' Workshop: The Margins, and elsewhere. She is currently pursuing her doctoral studies in San Diego (Kumeyaay land).