What’s in a Name?

Culture by Konstantina Tsoukalas

Konstantina is a Third Culture Kid (TCK) and a Child Of a Deaf Adult (CODA). She is currently a Social Work student with a minor in Theology at Roberts Wesleyan College. Though originally from Rochester, NY, Konstantina grew up as the child of missionaries to the Deaf in South Africa and Zambia. She is passionate about culture, language, travel, helping others see and reach their potential, and biblical missions from a holistic relational philosophy. She is the president of Roberts’ chapter of MuKappa, a community of Third Culture Kids, and is involved in leadership with Roberts’ Global Club.

“Not all immigrants decide the same thing or are fortunate enough to keep their last name.”

Have you ever been introduced to someone with a long name and thought, “I hope they don’t ask me to say it”, “How do you even spell that?”, or “What do I call them if I need to get their attention?” If you have, you’re certainly not alone. Big names can be intimidating, especially if you don’t have one or didn’t grow up around people that do. I was born with a long name. Konstantina is a mouthful for some, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve been called by a nickname–Tina–and variations of it. Because of my name (and all the ways it’s been mispronounced), I am hyper-aware of others’ names and make sure I’m pronouncing them correctly.

It’s always been amusing to me, seeing people try to pronounce my name. Not only do I have a long first name, but I also have a long last name to go with it: Tsoukalas. (The Americanized pronunciation sounds something like “sue-call-us”.) One of the funniest things about having a long and uncommon name is the mispronunciations. I’ve heard my last name wrongly pronounced ‘Choo-kalas’, ‘Zoo-kalas’, ‘Tuh-soo-kalas’, and lots more in between. While mispronunciations were amusing for a while, correcting people with “Actually, it’s pronounced Tsoukalas” gets old rather quickly.

When my paternal grandparents emigrated from Greece in the ’50s, they decided to keep their last name. Not all immigrants decide the same thing or are fortunate enough to keep their last name. I have family members who decided to legally shorten their name from Tsoukalas to ‘Kalas’. I also know someone whose family name was changed from the original Greek to the Americanised Andrews at Ellis Island.

Whether or not names are changed, the thought processes that go into that decision all trace back to identity. In my grandparents’ case, the decision not to change our last name was because they wished to retain their Hellenic roots while simultaneously establishing a life in the US. In contrast, a name may be changed to more quickly and seamlessly assimilate to American culture. Because I am the third generation (counting my yiayia and pappou) to live in the United States, and because I do not speak Greek fluently, making use of my full Greek name and ensuring that it’s pronounced correctly is very important to me. I genuinely have no preference for Tina or Konstantina; all I ask is that if Konstantina is chosen, it’s pronounced correctly. Oddly, I have the privilege of having it “both ways”, and since I am American, people don’t think twice about calling me by my long-preferred nickname. Had we not gotten into a conversation about names, some of my friends might not have ever known my full name is Konstantina.

Not everyone with a long or unique name has the privilege of having respect for the preference of a chosen name. Thanks to a brief interview my lovely friend Kate Nguyen agreed to, I have experiences to share with you that come from a different perspective. Kate is originally from Vietnam, and she and I met in the Global Honors Program in our first semester at Roberts. We have some shared experiences in terms of general life experience, the frustrations of being “foreign on campus”, and have similar contributions to and opinions regarding class discussions.

Kate Nguyen

Kate’s full Vietnamese name, in the traditional order, is Nguyen Thi Mai Khue. (Her “first name” in an English context is Khue.) She came to the US for high school after learning English in Vietnam. She settled on the nickname Kate after her non-Vietnamese English teachers encouraged the class to take English nicknames to remember their students’ names easier. Kate continues to be known as and referred to by her English nickname in part for ease of those who need to use her name, but also because Khue is hard for non-Vietnamese speakers to pronounce. English speakers’ attempts to pronounce it can be so inaccurate that Kate has a hard time recognizing when people are trying to get her attention.

Kate has noticed that the people close to her who may (acceptably) call her Khue do so strictly out of respect for her cultural background and, as such, use it in personal conversations. However, Kate has also taken note of some peers (very few) who elect to call her Khue as what can only be described as an “exotic flex”, as if calling her by her Vietnamese name and not by her preferred name somehow elevates them. Professors and coaches have been respectful of Kate’s choice to go by her English nickname. Kate said she does not particularly mind if someone, at first, mispronounces her Vietnamese name. (E.g., a professor calling roll.) She can easily demonstrate the correct pronunciation, then inform them of her preferred name.

What begins to annoy Kate is when people ignore the boundary she has set regarding her name and choose to continue mispronouncing Khue instead of simply calling her by the nickname she goes by. When called Kate, she can avoid any confusion or mistakes regarding her Vietnamese name. There is something funny about people wanting what they’ve been told they cannot have. I allow people to call me by my Greek name if they choose, yet I’ve not yet encountered someone who prefers to call me Konstantina. Kate clarifies to everyone that her Vietnamese name is off-limits, yet some people seem to see that as a challenge to pronounce Khue correctly. Why is this the case?

“An ancient Chinese proverb says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” Let me introduce myself to you. My name is Konstantina”

I said earlier that the decision to keep or change one’s name traces back to identity. In my case, I grew up a few steps removed from my Greek background, specifically in terms of culture and language. I find that by using Konstantina, I’m able to connect to that part of my family’s history, and that makes me happy. Kate was born and raised in Vietnam. She is not at all removed from her home country in terms of culture or language. Because of the strong connection she has to Vietnam, she doesn’t feel compelled in the same way I do about my Greek name to use her Vietnamese name—and that is entirely valid.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a classroom where a professor calls roll, and every time they get to an international student’s name, they seem to take it as a challenge to see if they remember how to correctly pronounce the student’s ethnic name from their home country. Time and time again, I’ve heard international students say, “No, that’s still not right. Just call me [insert nickname].” No one is obligated to anyone else’s culture. The difference between my choice to go by Tina or Konstantina and Kate’s choice to not go by Khue has to do with this. Just because people can tell that Kate is from Vietnam does not mean she’s obligated to explain pronunciation, language, and culture to them. Just as if you wouldn’t hear my name and expect me to lecture you on Greece.

Names are important. Names represent identity. Kate’s identity doesn’t change when she asks you to call her Kate. My identity doesn’t change when someone decides to call me Konstantina. Respecting the name boundaries people create ought to be a no-brainer. Respecting someone’s name boundary, in turn, shows that you respect them as a person, as well as the culture their name represents.

I encourage people to call me Konstantina (pronounced correctly) because the pronunciation of my family’s name was botched again and again as my grandparents transitioned from Greece to the United States. Pronouncing my full name correctly shows respect for my wishes and culture. Kate asks that people avoid calling her Khue because people pronounce it however they decide to say it instead of pronouncing it correctly. Using Kate’s nickname shows respect for her wishes and culture.

An ancient Chinese proverb says, “The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” Let me introduce myself to you. My name is Konstantina, and you can call me by that name or by my nickname, Tina. Meet my friend, Kate.

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