Atsushi (pronounced At-su-shi), who was born in Japan and moved to the United States with his family when he was in third grade, spent his entire educational career getting called ‘Sushi’ by his American classmates. He told VICE that the nickname was given to him by an afterschool basketball coach, and it stuck, at the behest of his parents, who wanted their son to assimilate into American culture. For a while, Atsushi said, the nickname didn’t bother him: “It was more about making sure I fit in to this Western, white society.” But once he entered the professional world and took a step back to consider the way he presented himself, he dropped the name immediately. “That was when I finally realized people can pronounce my name after a couple tries,” he said. “I started to realize that other people had more respect for their names. They didn’t think they had to make compromises to get people to say their name.”
Nicknames can certainly be affectionate. They’re often a signal of familiarity and intimacy, like the exchange of pet names between romantic partners or the joke-y personalized jerseys worn by members of a sports team. When the act of nicknaming doesn’t stem from a close relationship, or the desire to connote closeness, things get trickier. According to people whose names deviate from the American conception of ‘normal,’ it’s not unusual to get assigned an unwanted, unsolicited nickname from people who are trying to avoid learning to pronounce their real name. But that refusal to learn can leave the nickname recipients feeling alienated, and even downright disrespected.
If your name is “hard” or “weird,” introductions can be fraught. When a new acquaintance asks Ashfia (pronounced Ash-fee-a) if they can call her “Ash,” because it’s “easier to say,” she questions what gave them the impression that the answer might be yes. “It kind of makes me doubt my own confidence,” Ashfia told VICE. “I think, ‘Oh, am I coming across as too nice, or as someone they find they can just...do that with?’”
When Róisín (pronounced Row-sheen) moved to the United States from the United Kingdom for a job (she currently works for i-D in London), she found herself in possession of a new nickname as soon as she started spending time with people in social settings. “When I first moved [to New York], I was kind of embarrassed at being different in any way, so I just ran with it and was like, ‘Haha, yeah, whatever, it’s fine, I’m cool!’” she said over Twitter DM. “I didn’t wanna feel like a square or just come across as a dickhead. Now that I’m older, I’m like, ‘Guys, that’s not how you say my name, please, for the love of God, learn!’” Some of her American acquaintances still call her “Rowsh,” which she said she’s grown to like, even if she doesn’t love the logic behind it. “I know it’s because they can’t say Róisín and I did not consent to that!!!”
There’s also an obvious cultural (and racial) component to name culture. Atsushi said he still hasn’t let all of his college friends know that he prefers to be called by his full name, but that he no longer introduces himself as ‘Sushi,’ and hopes they’ll take the hint eventually. “At this point, I don’t know if I’m making a big deal out of this, but over time it kind of feels gross,” he said. “It’s a little like calling someone ‘buddy’ or ‘little man.’ It’s a little bit belittling of my own identity. And my case is special, because it’s a little bit racist to call a Japanese person ‘Sushi’… but it’s still a part of my name, so it’s a gray area. Like, think about what it feels like to be called a food from your own culture.”
That ambivalence feels relevant, because for immigrants and their children, a name can often feel like a small thing to fight for given the host of other problems they’re likely to face. But since it’s something they have to work around on a daily basis, it doesn’t feel like a small issue, either. Ashfia said the balancing act between the desire to be polite and the desire to be identified correctly is difficult to navigate and can be extremely frustrating, especially as a first-generation Bangladeshi-American with strong ties to her culture. “There’s two very different scenarios,” she said. “One scenario where you're asking me how to pronounce my name is giving me control, versus another scenario where you're basically giving me a nickname. [That’s] you taking control of my identity.”
Daily errands like grabbing a cup of coffee or snagging takeout can also come with an extra layer of decision-making for people with unusual names. Do I take the time to make sure Starbucks gets my name right, or do I give out a fake one? Do I correct my substitute teacher, my Uber driver, my friend’s friend from out of town who I’ll probably never see again? All of the people VICE spoke to for this story said that in customer service situations and during other fleeting interactions, they tend to defer to a nickname for the sake of convenience—but that the choice to do so always involves a conscious decision-making process. “The only place I would go along with it still would be at the doctor or the hospital,” Róisín said.
Ultimately, Americanizing someone else’s name to make yourself feel more comfortable is a jackass move, especially if you just met them. People who might feel nervous about asking how to pronounce a name that seems complex on paper can rest assured that they’re coming off as curious and considerate instead of lazy and oblivious. “I don't really care if you pronounce it wrong if you make an effort,” Ashfia said. “For me, it's a pretty simple equation: If someone has a difficult name that you can't pronounce, then you ask them how to pronounce it, you learn how to pronounce it, and you move on with your life. Instead of choosing to be ignorant, it's better to choose to learn, right?”
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This article originally appeared on VICE US.