Sunday, August 17, 2008

What's in a name?

A crowfoot flower, tenaciously among the rocks.

I hate people who don't listen when I slowly spell my name for them: Oh, Ay, En, Aitch. "What? En, Ay, Oh?"; No! Oh [wait for them to say, yes?] Ay [wait for a yes?]; En [wait for another yes? they get impatient] Aitch. That's all. Then they say, "Okay, why did you not say your name was Ann?" Hmm, because it's not. My name is Oanh. It starts with an Oh. And is pronounced wun. Shall I spell it for you, again? "Oh, sure. That's unusual, isn't it?" Mmm, I murmur, without saying anything else. It's too much hassle to say, no, actually, it's not unusual. I have been patient, really, I have. Patient all my life.

I don't expect anyone to know how to pronounce or spell my name (okay, my family and friends I do expect to know). Hell, I even crack pretty good jokes about my name (if I say so myself). My best was when I rang my best friend in high shool and her father picked up the phone.

Me: Hi, Mr BestFriend. Can I speak to BestFriend? It's Oanh.

Mr BestFriend: Which Oanh? ho ho.

Me: The only Oanh of course. chuckle chuckle.

Mr BestFriend: Ha! That's great! [Aside and shouting] BestFriend! It's only Oanh on the phone!

Of course, sometimes I got sick of my name. Random people, usually men, usually on trains, would ask me my name and I would tell them: Two point four. I thought I was being pretty funny. They did not bother trying to chat me up any further.
I also used to lie - colourfully - about my 'ethnic heritage'. You know, in response to the "Where are you REALLY from?" question.

Sometimes, I would be an Inuit princess, seeking refuge in Australia from having to marry my sister's brother because she died, which was a custom of the tribe that I would one day lead. I was here, learning martial arts and survival skills, and I would return when I was strong, to overthrow my father, to re-create the matriarchal society we were supposed to be. That was my favourite story.

Sometimes I was just apathetic. Yes, I'm from China. It's a big place. Yes, I eat dogs. And lounge about smoking opium. Sure, I will amend the feng shui in your house. You should place the lucky dragon plant in the turtle corner well away from the phoenix roof. Not good for the monkey vibes. Although, it is the year of the oscillating octopus, so perhaps you should completely obliterate the turtle corner.

Or I would reply to people who called out, "Konnichi Wa!" with Origami! Toyota! Mitsubishi! and they would look at me, failing to appreciate the extent and sheer scintillating brilliance of my wit. Some of them even went on to speak more Japanese to me. Bless their misinformed hearts. Needless to write (but I'm going to write it), I did not date any of them.

And you know what? None of these people I spun stories to ever commented on my Aussie accent.

I used to want to change my name. To something easy. Something 'Anglo'. Something that, when a relief teacher was taking class I did not have to say, Here-ah when there was a puzzled pause.

I had one relief teacher who was extremely discombobulated to discover that I was named 'one'. I was sitting in the front row, first desk. He was a young teacher, and it did not help that my classmate (front row, second desk) piped up that he was 'two'. The poor, young relief teacher assumed we'd been allocated numbers, so he proceeded to call us by the numbers that our seating arrangements would have assigned us. We all tittered quietly but did not correct him. When the principal came in to check on how he was doing, our class got a stern scolding. Me, especially, for allowing it to happen (I was Class Goody-Two-Shoes (otherwise known as School Captain). The relief teacher never then did believe me that my name actually, really was Oanh. I had to ask the principal to affirm that, "Yes, her name really is Oanh", for the relief teacher to accept any more words that came out of my mouth, asserting anything at all.

Actually, I have strong recollections of wanting to change my name to Karen. I cannot now recall why the name Karen. She's not in any books that I can remember from my childhood.

I've been happily Oanh for a while now.


Wandering Chopsticks said...

I always get confused for a man. :) Well, on paper anyway.

When I used to work with the VNese community more, they'd think my last name was my first name. Or that my middle name was my last name. Don't know why when I clearly introduce myself by my first name. But my name got mangled up and rearranged all the time, and always with the wrong accent on my middle name too. The only people who got it were the other VNese-Chinese.

My current boss is Chinese and she can't pronounce the English equivalent of my name at all. So I said she could call me by my Chinese name. But instead of pronouncing it the Cantonese way, which some of my Chinese relatives use to call me, she insists on saying it in Mandarin. And of course, I'm not used to responding to my name in Mandarin so it just sounds weird.

Oh, and I hate when Northerners say my name too because they don't pronounce it right either.

I just make it so difficult. :P

Cam said...

I got confused for fruit in VN.

I thought it would be easier all round if I called myself Cam instead of Cameron. My friends there had a high old time bringing me glasses of nouc cam while everyone else got tea. Much hilarity ensued when a cheeky nephew went and got me a banana. I guess you had to be there...

btw Oanh, if you're an aussie what with 'aitch'? Shouldn't it be Haitch? Theat's how I said it when I was there.

People in NZ like to joke about Aussies talking about the HIH collapse. "haitch eye haitch"..


Kirsty said...

You're Oanh jokes are hilarious : )

lbw said...

It's cool you kept your name. I changed mine or rather my parents changed it for me when I started school because the teachers got my name mixed up with my dad's name. Of course this was back in the days when the report card would read, "Despite LBW's bilingualism she has a strong grasp of etc..." My English name is pretty much my name now. Also my Chinese name is not in the dialect that I speak, so even I was unsure of how to pronounce it until I went to China to learn Chinese. It was pretty cool being known by that name. I also make up stuff. There's a guy at the deli (malaysian) who always asks me where I'm from or says, "Australia pretty good huh"...I think I've given him a different answer each time. I don't think he realises I'm the same person.
I used to say I was from UlanBator - in the days before Google - so that was pretty cool for most people.
At those fruit slushy kiosks...i usuallyjust make up a name. SOmetmes I get really juvenile and do the Bart SImpson thing...

Hedgehog said...

A lot of my Viet friends have Anglo names to use at work or when talking to English people. I dunno, I still think unless your name is Phuc or Dung, there is no need really to change your name. I kinda like my name being different from the norm; on the other hand, sometimes I wonder if people treat you differently if you have an English name for your first name instead of a Vietnamese name.

tseen said...

Now, decades later, I'm really happy with my name and the fact that it's almost entirely unique (there was a band around for a while called "Tseenke", but they're gone now). I did consider changing it to "Jen" at one stage, during a job where I had to do a lot of cold-calling. Half the time ended up being me explaining my name and how to spell it. I have the same experience with people hearing the name, wanting to start writing it, then getting annoyed because it's not what they thought it would be (by the time I start spelling my name, people have already written down "Ch..."). I hate people correcting how I say my own name. Sure, it may not be 100% kosher with Mandarin pronunciation but, er, it's MY name, yo.

Oanh said...

Wandering Chopsticks -

Refer to Tseen's comment: it's YOUR name! It should be how YOU pronounce it, even if it's wrong. I try very hard to make sure I pronounce people's names how they pronounce it, including Viet names that have been anglocised and the person prefers the anglocised name ... like Loan. I know lots of Loan who now prefer to be known as Lo-wan, because that's more correct than loan (of money). Although, I have to admit to not calling any of my cousins by their chosen English names, so maybe I am a hypocrite.

Cam -

Well, there you are, I was wondering if you male or female and now I know :-) I can see Viet people finding themselves very funny with bringing you juice. Hell, I'd probably do it. ho ho!

The aitch thing is very conflicted, you know. It depends when your schooling was in Australia. Also, I was a student of Latin, so there are conflicts there about dropping the aspirated huh sound.

The fashions for the aspirated huh sound kept fluctuating, all the way back to Caesar, and beyond.

Put it down to my schooling, I'm definitely an aitch kinda person!

Kirsty -

You have me in knots deciding where the punctuation should go ... :-)


It never occured to my parents that people would have a difficulty with my name. I am very sad that of all my siblings, mine is the only name without diacritical marks.

I almost always book restaurants under the name of a co-diner and not my own - it's just too confusing.

"A table for two at 7pm under the name of one." What?

Hedgehog -

I think people definitely do treat you differently. I can understand not wanting the hassle, though, whether your name is something potentially rude, or just because it's too difficult. It's just weighing the value of ease with the inport you place upon your name. I've always been a fighter, sometimes, though, I deflate and give in.

Tseen -

Yes, well, I'm not super sure how to pronounce your name ...

Isn't it funny - in youth one wants so much to fit in; later, one wants to be unique.

Sometimes, I wish I could hit people on the head when they make assumptions. That's not really the best way, though, to persuade someone that your case is rational, logical and right...

Kirsty said...

Ha, just read Tseen's comments and realised I have regularly corrected people on the pronunciation of her name when it's clear they've come up with something after seeing it written.

Anonymous said...


i dont bother trying to get them to pronounce nhu* with the accent. i am just over it so i jsut say its 'nu' and of course that then brings on the 'new' jokes.

you cant win!!

Oanh said...

Kirsty -

I am trying to remember if you have corrected me? If so, the correction failed to stick :-(


The 'nn' sound in nhu is so difficult for non-Viet ears to hear. Such a subtle sound.

I thought my name was really easy to pronounce, until I got to England. Where even the number 'one' is said differently depending on one's class and where one was brought up. It's astounding.

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Kiran Iluri said...

wonderful information, I had come to know about your blog from my friend nandu , hyderabad,i have read all posts of yours by now, and let me tell you, your website gives the best and the most interesting information. This is just the kind of information that i had been looking for, once again hats off to you! Thanks a ton once again, Regards, muslim baby names

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