TL;DR: You get one shot at pronouncing my very awesome name. After that, move the f*** on with your life and pronounce it how I?m telling you to pronounce it.
I get this question way, way too often. Generally, I gravitate to multicultural societies where people of a similar cultures would likely be exposed to it enough to normalize it.
I even hoped that after Barack Obama was elected, Americans would get over weird-sounding names and finally embrace diversity as one of its strengths.
Still not sure on where we are with all that, America.
Allow me to break down the typical conversational thread I have, if I?m lucky.
The pre-inquiry: plan your approach wisely
?Hey, Lee! So sorry to bother you, but do you mind telling me how to pronounce your last name? I?m just curious.?
This is the best way to approach me about this subject: respectful, mindful, and inquisitive. First, I could be in any sort of mood, so good to ask if this is a time that?s appropriate for me to educate you on a personal matter. Bonus points for appealing to your innocent curiosity.
If I decline, don?t take it personally. If you come at me aggressively, or worse, in any way that entitles you to an answer, you get a nice middle finger for imposing yourself. Go find another ?ethnic? to bother.
Or, just watch this much more patient description (it?s actually quite good).
(I hope to meet a guy named Ron and say, ?You?re wrong, Ron. It?s Ngo, not ?no?.)
Here?s my first answer: Ngo.
Here?s my typical response.
My last name is Ngo.
It?s one syllable, and when I pronounce it, I use my nose and press the back of my tongue against my molars to pull off just the right sound.
Don?t worry if you can?t do it.
Seriously, not the end of the world.?
Some awesome facts (I wish could I spit these out at will):
- It is a Sino-Vietnamese last name, which means it is Chinese in origin. Similar names in other Asian cultures include Wu/Woo (Mandarin), Ng (Cantonese, Hakka), and Oh (Korean). I may have a lot of cousins.
- It is the 10th most common Vietnamese family name. Very unlikely it will take the top spot, as Nguyens make up about 40%.
- There are over 1.5 million people with this surname worldwide. It is the 317th most common surname in the world. Most incidences of it are in the Southeast Asia, Southwestern Africa (different pronunciation), and the United States.
- There are over 30,000 people with my surname in the U.S. It is the 1,275th most common surname in the country.
This is the character for Ngo.
There?s a lot of history and pride that comes with last names, and mine are no different. Unfortunately, most people hear Ngo and think of Ngo Dinh Diem, who by some accounts ruled over the American-friendly Republic of Vietnam like a dictator in such an intolerable way that the U.S. backed a coup to assassinate him. (You know, because, America).
Instead, why not recall that part of Vietnam was once ruled under the Ngo dynasty over 1,000 years ago? Or, you can think of this guy Ngo Bao Chau, who won the Fields Medal in 2010.
You know, that thing two professors argued over in Good Will Hunting.
Here?s what I?m comfortable with: ?Noh.?
- If you can pronounce it on the first try, I fall in love with you. Seriously.
- If you try it after two or three times, pretty good. You get a high-five.
- After about five or six failed attempts, I?m growing impatient. Give up.
The question I?ll get after the repeated failure is:
?Well, how do YOU pronounce it, Lee??
Motherf***ker. I just told you, and you can?t. I was raised to say Vietnamese sounds as a kid, and even then, my accent is super weird and offensive to some people. I get that.
What you should be asking at this point:
?Gosh, Lee this is tricky for me. I think I may lack the linguistic capacity to say certain sounds after practicing dissimilar languages for my entire life.
I?m sure I?m wasting your time trying at this point, but thank you for giving me a chance to be as respectful to your and your family name as possible.
So that I can move on with my entire life, how do you prefer others pronounce your last name??
You may pronounce it as ?Noh,? which of all the ungodly alternatives I?ve heard in my life, this is the most tolerable for me.
More rules on engaging with House Ngo
- Say ?LEE NOH.? It?s light, simple, and efficient. One less thing to worry about for me, and most importantly, IT?S WHAT I?M TELLING YOU TO DO. Do that, and we?ll get along fine. I can?t help you on our ongoing quest to unlock cultural achievements and earn new Poke?-Asians or whatever.
- Don?t say ?Nyo.? There?s no ?y? there, and resonates of ?nyah nyah nyah? and other playground nonsense I?ve have to deal with. It?s lazy and stupid.
- Don?t say more than one syllable. ?Ni-Go? or ?Na-Go? offends me because it sounds almost like a racial slur. Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language, so treat it as such.(Side note: some popular idiots in high school called me ?No-Go? just to bring me down, so I made a shirt that said ?No-Go? and wore it to class. Sometimes, you have to own the abuse you receive to silence your oppressors. Also, spread a rumor that they have herpes. Herpes lasts forever.)
- Don?t spell out my name. Yeah, I?ve heard the stupid B-I-N-G-O. It makes me want to perform genital mutilation upon you so that we have comparable experiences in agony.
- Don?t tease me. You?re not just making fun of me, but my dad, my sisters, my mom, and a lot of other people who don?t deserve that disrespect because they?re different from you. Stop being a insensitive bigot.
There was a time when I wanted to give in
I?ve been bullied a lot over my name ? even from teachers. That auto-alienating feeling is why I?ve gravitated a lot to spending more time with Vietnamese people in college and graduate school, even though I?ll racist-ly say that Vietnamese people, like pretty much all people, are crazy.
When I met my wife of Filipina nationality nearly nine years ago, she was able to pronounce my name without a beat. ?How??? I asked.
?I?m Southeast Asian. Same, same,? she smiled.
Finding common ground creates bonds that matter, and when I?m able to be myself without that feeling of being an outsider looking in, I?m happier overall. However, there was a time when I didn?t want to be a Ngo.
I?ve flirted with the idea of changing it to something that?s still Asian enough to reflect the handsome face I was born with but easier on American ears and tongues. That?s how badly I wanted to avoid the cultural simpletons who?d take me through this stupid process over and over again.
Before I went to college my dad made a suggestion: Lee Wu.
?Son,? he told me. ?I?ve dealt with this for .. .years, and I?m ?tired. I don?t think I went as far as I could because people thought I was different. I want you to have the best opportunities when you go out there.
Besides, we?re pretty much Chinese. It?s technically your name.?
My dad wasn?t alone, as NPR reported. People will Asian names still get less job interviews. I?ve been somewhat successful on the job front, but I?ve often wondered with my extensive experience and pedigree education whether I should do an A/B test with the name ?Mark Whiteman? on my resume.
I?m not going to compromise my ascribed identity because it?s an inconvenience to your cultural deficiencies.
If this nation is a meritocracy, as I?m often duped to think by the Ayn Rand types out there, then I?m going to hopefully find a place that recognizes my talents and embraces my uniqueness.
In other words, if you have a bias against me, it?ll be your loss.
?Lee Wu? doesn?t have an identity.
He didn?t work hard to get in top universities, convince a genius to marry him, work on groundbreaking initiatives constantly, and continuously serve the greater educational technology community as one of its architects.
He doesn?t have amazing friends and family who don?t care what his name is or where he came from, as long as his actions and words aim true.
He doesn?t understand the struggle. He doesn?t exist.
?Lee Ngo?, however. Now that?s a name I?d love to know how to pronounce.
Finally, your moment of zen.
PS: I censored a lot of f-bombs in this post. Hope you got the emotional sentiment loud and clear.