“So, if you click the Raise Your Hand button, Teams has a cool new feature where it just gives me a list of your names, in the order you raised your hand! Who’s first… Sanjay?”
I scanned the rectangles on my screen, wondering who Sanjay could be. I had raised my hand first! Only my face was stamped with the cartoon yellow hand.
“Sanjay, are you on mute?”
Silence, until it suddenly dawned on me that I was Sanjay. Or rather I, Seunghae, was being called Sanjay.
“Thanks, Mia, and this is actually Jane.” I tried to be unfazed, but my heart was pounding. Later, I would learn that a glitch in the IT system had reset my profile and displayed my full legal name, Seunghae Jane Kim, rather than the usual Jane Kim, on the video call and everywhere else in the digital workplace.
“Oh, hey Jane! Have you always had your real name there? Apologies, if I butchered your name, I am so bad at pronouncing, uh, names. Ok, sorry about that, go ahead!”
Once the meeting was over, I immediately contacted IT to fix the issue, to put my first name back where it belonged. I wanted Seunghae to be protected from those who would say it out loud. Locked away from my coworkers, only to be seen by the legal or HR team.
Once in a while, when an incident like this happens, I’m reminded of a college scene from 14 years ago: my first class in a small section with a professor.
The professor stands in front of the white board, peering down at the attendance sheet through clear-rimmed glasses, pen in hand while calling out names.
“Hi Katherine! Do you go by Kate or Katie? Or it’s just Katherine? Ok, Katherine it is! A nice strong name. Good for you.”
As the names and preferences of each student were revealed, there emerged a pattern.
“Sorry my name is so long, but you can just call me Mimi. In Thailand everyone has nicknames. All our names are so long.”
Each Asian name after another flattened down to but you can call me… Lamenting all the Johns and Joes in the classroom, the professor eventually threw up the attendance sheet in exasperation.
“Why does everyone want these boring nick names? Shong Dom, that is a beautiful name! Please don’t go by John. Would you kindly share with us what your beautiful name means? Is it Mandarin?”
And so on, until it became my turn.
“Seeing Hey… Seeing Hee Kim?”
“Hi! Yes, and you can call me Jane.”
“Really? I like Seeing Hee. Are you sure you want to go by Jane instead of your real name?”
“So actually, this is my real name. It’s um, like my real middle name? Like, it’s actually in my passport…”
“Well okay, Jane. But Seeing Hee is a great name, you should keep it.”
Embarrassment, then guilt. After all, I wanted these new classmates to like me. Around me were lifelong Americans who had been going by a nickname since birth, foreign students who decided that week to baptize themselves with a classic, Anglo name like “Charles,” and everyone in between– I related to the whole spectrum. I felt guilty for differentiating myself from others who didn’t have the same “it’s officially on my government ID” excuse.
Still, I also felt defensive of my parent-given name. Unlike Seunghae, a name chosen by my grandpa in Korea, Jane was the name that my parents decided on together when I was born in America. Like Seunghae, it’s also my real name.
Jane is not the same as Jenn, Jean, or Jan, although when a barista calls my name and I pick up the coffee cup that says “Jade,” I must admit it sounds pretty close. (Strangely enough, no one thinks my name is Jade when I say it over the phone.) When non-Korean speaking people say Seunghae, the names that leave their lips are not mine. Sometimes I play along. I repeat my name, over and over, as they parrot after me.
Soon, Gay? Seung, Hae?
Did I get it right that time? How about now? The eager smile and stretched lips go two ways: fleeting triumph, or worse, a disappointed look that says, why aren’t you more grateful I’m putting in all this effort? I’ve seen friends give out participation prizes in this game, but I’ve always refused to do so.
To my ears, no matter how cooperative I try to be– aware of my surroundings so that I would be alerted to some version of my name– I consistently fail to recognize that I am Sanjay.
Today, there’s a real effort and cultural shift towards pronouncing people’s names, rather than resorting to a nickname that is easier for the Anglophone speaker. As a child, the actor Uzo Aduba asked her mother if she could go by “Zoe” at school, to which she replied, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
I believe my first college professor was an early champion of a worthy effort to pronounce students’ “real” names, including my first name. Perhaps it was a move to encourage shy 18-year-olds to embrace their identities, rather than succumb to the sea of Johns and Janes. But that well-meaning intention doesn’t always intersect with calling people how they want to be identified.
It’s an ongoing project, learning how to pronounce all the names of the world correctly, and if that’s how we’re going to start doing things, it will be those with unusual names who inherit a Sisyphean task for the rest of our lives.
As for me? Please call me Jane. I prefer it.