To all my uniquely named friends out there, this one’s for you.
I struggled to share this story but I think it might be worth a read.
My name is Bonika Sok, and there’s a good chance you didn’t say my name right. It’s pronounced Bon-nik-ka Soak. At first it was a nuisance but now my name has become an important part of my identity. My name has impacted the way I see myself.
Thus, the purpose of my story is to bring awareness to the My Name My Identity Campaign which advocates the importance of pronouncing people’s names correctly because how your name is perceived can impact the personal beliefs you develop about yourself.
Your name is your identity, which means so much more than you think.
What Motivated Me to Write this Blog Post?
My personal life experiences, along with the experiences of those who have related to them, and the messages I have received surrounding my name, are what drove me to share my story. As well, there were a few resources I recently discovered that helped motivate me to write this blog post.
I was surprised to have stumbled across the My Name, My Identity Campaign because I didn’t know something like this even existed. I didn’t realize that my struggle with my name was such a common issue.
The objectives of the campaign are to:
Bring awareness to the importance of respecting one’s name and identity in schools as measured by the number of community members making a pledge to pronounce students’ names correctly
Build a respectful and caring culture in school communities that value diversity as measured by my name stories posted on social media.
I truly admire what the campaign stands for as it directly aligns with my personal values and philosophy of Early Childhood Education and Care.
I was also inspired by Gerardo Ochoa’s TED talk about his experience growing up with a name that is difficult to pronounce. I was completely moved by his speech and after watching his talk, I remember feeling thoroughly understood. Throughout his presentation, I kept saying to myself “wow, this guy gets it!” It was very reassuring to hear his experiences and be able to connect to it so deeply. A large part of how I came about reclaiming my own name was from hearing his story. He, as well as my wonderful work colleagues, gave me the courage and motivation to share my name story and how it has impacted my developing identity.
Why is This important?
“A person’s name is the greatest connection to their own identity and individuality. Some might say it is the most important word in the world to that person” (Russell, 2014).
Our names are a large part of who we are as individuals and should be honoured, valued, and respected as such.
According to the My Name My Identity Campaign, “by pronouncing students’ names correctly, you can foster a sense of belonging and build positive relationships in the classroom, which are crucial for healthy social, psychological, and educational outcomes” (2016). This concept is so important and aligns directly with the values of Ontario’s guiding documents for the early years (e.g. How Does Learning Happen? Ontario’s Pedagogy for the Early Years (2014), Early Learning for Every Child Today: A Framework for Ontario Early Childhood Settings (2007), and Think, Feel, Act: Lessons from Research About Young Children (2013), etc.).
When we consistently pronounce peoples’ names incorrectly, as Gerardo Ochoa says, it can lead to “invisibility”. Children can feel invisible when others constantly struggle to pronounce their names or when their names are not appreciated or recognized as “normal” or “common.”
This can impact a child’s developing self-esteem as our names are a large part of what makes up our individual identity. It can also have damaging effects on a child’s social and emotional development. Disproportionally, the mispronunciation of names affects newcomer children and children of colour, children who are likely already struggling to feel visible and represented in dominant White culture. This comes to influence not only one’s sense of self, but how one relates to others as well.
Have you ever wondered about the messages we unintentionally send to children when we mispronounce their names? When your Educator describes your name as “difficult to pronounce” or struggles to say it, it could be received as “your name does fit into my vocabulary”. Some peoples’ names are a significant part of their ethnic identity. When their names are perceived as different, it can make that individual feel isolated and can impact their sense of belonging and how they come to see themselves, their ethnicity, and their culture. It is my hope that my story can inspire people to not only embrace their own name and identity but to be respectful and considerate of other peoples’ names as well.
Another reason I am writing this is because I have noticed that there are many people who have felt the need to completely change their name to make it easier for others to pronounce. There seems to be this assumption, especially for newcomers to Canada, that when you arrive here, you need to change your name to something more “Canadian” in order to fit into society.
For instance, I have a friend who immigrated from China and she changed her name when coming to Canada because, in China, her English teacher suggested that this was necessary when moving to an English-speaking country. She told me that she recognized that her real name can be hard for others to pronounce correctly and she had many experiences of having her name mispronounced. She also believed that changing her name would allow her to be more easily accepted in Canada and her “Canadian name” would make it easier for people to remember her.
When I asked her what name she would like to be called, she told me she would love to be called by her real name, but because she is shy and does not feel comfortable correcting others, not wishing to draw any attention to herself, she says nothing. This is similar to my culture, where growing up we are taught that we should always respect and obey our authority figures (ie. elders, teachers, etc.). Questioning or correcting is considered to be very inappropriate.
With this in mind, I encourage everyone to take the steps to ask what name a person wants to be called.
Changing a name is a personal decision and should never be an expectation.
And if someone corrects you about the pronunciation of their name, don’t get defensive, just apologize and try again. Take time to practice if you need to. They are not trying to be rude or picky, they are simply claiming ownership of their name and identity.
And to the people out there who have felt they had to change their name, I want you to know that your name holds great significance and you should embrace it. Correct people EVERY TIME they mispronounce it.
My Name Story
I’m sure we all loved it when there was a substitute teacher in class because it probably meant that we were watching movies all day. But for some of us, we actually dreaded seeing a new face at the front of the classroom because it meant, once again, our name was about to be butchered in front of the entire class, followed by an awkward public apology or poor joke.
Every year in elementary school, my teachers would always make a big scene before even attempting to pronounce my name. Every time, I heard the words “I’m sorry if I pronounce this wrong,” I knew that it was my name that was going to be announced next. I can remember always dreading that first part of the day when attendance was taken. It always made me feel embarrassed and, over time, I began to feel ashamed of my name.
There have been so many variations of my name and growing up, the other children would poke fun at it. I hated my name for a long time. I didn’t like that it was different and hard to pronounce correctly. I thought my name was ugly and I would even complain to my mom and ask her why she chose it. I also felt that it impeded on my ability to fit in with the rest of my peers because I was the only one that had an “uncommon” name. My name could feel like a barrier that prevented me from connecting with my peers.
Because my name didn’t feel like it fit in, I didn’t feel like I fit in either.
Needless to say, my name was mispronounced throughout my years of elementary school. Similar to my friend from China, I was also very shy and I never wanted to correct my teachers and draw attention to myself. I felt like I was being rude or disobedient to my teachers if I corrected them because of the culture I grew up in.
And so, I decided to just let them say my name however they thought it was supposed to be pronounced to make it easier for them.
But in doing so, I realize now that I was only inconveniencing myself because I was being called a name that wasn’t my own.
What I wish I could have told my teachers during this time was;
1) please take the time to learn to pronounce my name correctly so that I don’t feel any different from my peers,
2) please encourage others to take the time to learn as well, and;
3) please do not bring unnecessary attention to it.
When approaching high school, I was given the option to switch my preferred name, so I registered as Nika, a nickname I go by because it is shorter and people are less likely to mispronounce it. By switching my name, there were fewer mispronunciation issues compared to when I was in elementary school. However, in high school, I came across people who wanted to change my name anyways. For example, someone said they wanted to call me Nikki, “for short”. Or some people, when they discovered that I didn’t like my name, would use it in a sad attempt to get under my skin.
Even today, when people try to pronounce my name, they will overemphasize parts of it, or say it very slowly, or some will even begin to pick up a foreign accent when trying to say it.
It was only recently that I realized that for years I’ve completely ignored my real name. Hidden it. This was largely because of my early school experiences. It made me feel like I was different, and when I was that young, I didn’t understand that there was a bigger world out there and that being different was a beautiful thing. My school, classroom, and community were all that I knew. I was easily impressionable. It felt like no one else received this type of attention, so I was left feeling I was different and that I didn’t belong.
These were the lessons I learned indirectly and most likely not even intentionally. That is why it is so important to be aware of these actions and correct them early. This way of thinking needs to be changed so that other children with unique names won’t grow up feeling like outcasts, branding their own self-images and self-expectations.
It took me a long time, but now I am at a point where I love and accept my name. It is different, it is part of what makes me unique, and I now fully embrace both my name and my identity.
I am proud of my name and where I come from and I want others to feel empowered by their names as well.
I struggled to share this story because I am aware of an idea Brené Brown often talks about, that of ‘comparative suffering’, where we don’t want to talk about our struggles because there are other people out there that we perceive to have experienced worse. So we keep our stories to ourselves. But then I was taught that maybe I was robbing the world from hearing their own stories in mine. There are people out there that can probably relate and may feel less lonely or be inspired by it.
What are the Key Messages I Want People to Take Away After Reading My Post?
- To bring awareness to the My Name My Identity Campaign
- Honour and value all names and identities
- The importance of taking the time to learn how to pronounce someone’s name correctly
- Make sure you always correct people when they mispronounce your name
- Advocate for others; if you know someone is pronouncing someone’s name wrong, please correct them
- Encourage others to share their stories and experiences; you are not alone
- Promote empathy and respect for cultural names and identities
and finally, and most importantly, be empowered by and embrace your beautiful name!
Want to engage the children in your care in a discussion about belonging and the beauty of names? Check out Your Name is a Song by Jamilah Thompkins-Bigelow. This beautiful story is a love letter to the unique beauty and musicality of our names.
Written by Bonika Sok
Russell, J. (2014). Career coach: The power of using a name. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/capitalbusiness/career-coach-the-power-of-using-a-name/2014/01/10/8ca03da0-787e-11e3-8963-b4b654bcc9b2_story.html
Santa Clara County Office of Education (2018). Student voice: Respecting the name, respecting the identity [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOipDe7lhYM&feature=youtu.be
Ochoa, Gerardo (2019) Getting it right; why pronouncing names correctly matters [Video file]. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=58tDCaEWfHI&feature=youtu.be
The My Name, My Identity Campaign. (2016). https://www.mynamemyidentity.org/
Bonika Sok is Strive’s Project Intern from the Honours Bachelor of Early Childhood Leadership program at Fanshawe College. Bonika was born and raised here in London, Ontario and is one of 7 siblings. When she isn’t studying, you can probably find Bonika teaching herself Spanish, working out or spending time with her family. After graduation next year, Bonika plans to pursue a Master’s Degree in Social Work.