The Power of Names: A Personal Reflection this AAPI Heritage Month
I spoke at a virtual “Stop Asian Hate” rally following the tragic shooting in Atlanta that caused the deaths of six Asian women. On the occasion of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I share this message again. My hope is that it will encourage educators and parents to reinforce the values of curiosity, inclusivity, and acceptance so that our communities can be welcoming spaces for all.
Names are really interesting. They are a crucial part of our identity. Yet, interestingly enough, we probably hear our names spoken to us 100 times more than we say them. Names are critical in terms of shaping our understanding of the world around us, or, more specifically, understanding how the world perceives us. For instance, an old friend of mine calls me “Euge” because that was my nickname in college. Whenever someone calls me by that name, it triggers feelings of warmth, comfort, and familiarity.
On the other hand—and I’m sure you have either experienced this yourself or know someone who has—there are mean, nasty nicknames that take this very personal part of your identity, twist it, and weaponize it against you.
Recently, the names of the victims of the Atlanta murders were released. Unfortunately, a lot of the news media outlets didn’t quite get it right. They mispronounced names. They misspelled names. They left out entire parts of names. I’m not suggesting they did these things on purpose, but regardless, this incited a lot of anger, frustration, and hurt in the AAPI community, the community at large, and certainly in me.
I spent some time reflecting. Why was I so upset about this? I thought about my name and where it came from: It came from my parents. I thought about their names. My dad’s first name is Kap Joe. My mom’s first name is Hee Sun. But that’s not how they’re known. When they came to the United States 50 years ago, they realized pretty quickly that people weren’t interested in trying to say those names. They changed that part of their identity and are known to most people as Joe and Sunny—not because that’s who they are or what they wanted to be called but because it was more convenient for everyone else around them. In fact, they gave my brother and me American-sounding names (Chris and Eugene) just so we wouldn’t have to deal with these struggles.
It lives on now. I have two beautiful daughters. My wife is Indian-American, and we wanted our kids to have Indian first names. But we didn’t just choose Indian names that we liked. We forced ourselves to find names that are almost impossible to mispronounce. We wanted our children’s heritage reflected in their names, but we still took extra steps to insulate them from having to hear their names mangled over and over.
Stories like these are familiar to all Asian people, as well as other immigrants, children of immigrants, and people of color. Why do we go through these acrobatics? I don’t represent the entire Asian community, and I can’t speak for all children of immigrants, but for me it’s about wanting to be part of your community. It’s about wanting to belong.
Members of the AAPI community know this exchange well:
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from [insert American city or state].”
“Yes, but where are you really from?”
I wish people understood why that last question is offensive. Yes, we descended from immigrants or are immigrants ourselves, and we are proud of our heritage, but we are from here. Our families have struggled, sacrificed, and literally changed our identities in order to belong.
The recent string of hate crimes and attacks against Asian people has been deeply upsetting and troubling. I needed to sit and process things for a while, and after I did, I needed to do something. I’m hoping that others are also interested in doing something.
If you take one small actionable item to heart, let it be this: Get people’s names right. Take the extra time, make the effort, and learn to say people’s names the way they were meant to be said. Use it as an entry point to get to know your neighbor, your coworker, your friend. Learn their stories, see them for who they are, and make it clear that they are part of your community—that they belong. Start by saying their name.
Eugene Song is VP, product management at BrainPOP.