What’s in a Name?

MBMy name is MaiBao. The Hmong RPA spelling of MaiBao is Maiv Npauj. Maiv means “girl,” “miss,” or “little girl.” (Maiv can be used by itself to call someone significantly younger than you. For example, an elderly woman can call a young Hmong woman, “Maiv” without having to use her name). Npauj means “moth.” MaiBao or Maiv Npauj is pronounced phonetically as My Bow or My Bough (both rhyme with “cow”). The phonetic pronunciation has slight tonal variations from how one would pronounce my name in Hmong.

Throughout my life, I have had countless people mispronounce my name. People have called me MayBoo, MayBow, MayBo, even Maribelle. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bother me. However, I have gotten so used to it that it doesn’t come as a surprise when people say my name incorrectly.

A few weeks ago, I heard my 5-year-old correct her teacher’s pronunciation of my name as I sat in the back of the class, putting together the students’ caterpillar package.

“My mommy’s name is Maiv Npauj (she used the correct Hmong pronunciation).”

“MaiBao, that’s what I said,” the teacher said.

“No. It’s not MaiBao. It’s Maiv Npauj.”

“I know. That’s what I said. MaiBao.”

“No, Npauj. Npauj.”

Mrs. P. turned to me and asked, “How do you pronounce your name?”

Maiv Npauj,” I replied.

“MaiBao. Bao. Booooowwww,” she dragged out the second syllable.

Mrs. P. turned to Mini Mermaid, “See, your mom said her name is MaiBao.”

“No. She said her name is Maiv Npauj.”

Overhearing that conversation sparked some thoughts. How would things be like if we live in an alternate world where Hmong is the mainstream? Hmong pronunciation of English names and words would be commonplace. Michael would be Maiv Kaum (my-gao). Laura would be Lauv Lam (Lao-lah). Even simple names like Ben would instead be Npees (Bang). Would English-speaking individuals get annoyed that their names are always “mispronounced.”

But, wait. There are nations where English isn’t the main language, where English names and words do get a twist in pronunciation. For example, Michael in Japanese is Maikeru; it is Maikeul in Korean. Laura is Rora in Japanese and Lola in Korean.

For a long time, my children couldn’t pronounce one of their friends’ name. Instead of saying, “Sidney,” they called her “Cindy.” English is not their first language, so they sometimes have a hard time pronouncing certain English words. Sidney insisted that it should be pronounced, “Sidney.”

There is a teenage Armenian boy in our neighborhood whose name is Shaunt, but English-speakers call him “Shawn.” He has corrected them many times, telling them that it’s just like Shawn but with a T, but they still call him Shawn.

There is a little girl in one of my children’s class who is always correcting the everyone’s pronunciation of her name, Angelita, “It’s An-Gal-EET-a, not An-Jah-LEEt-a.”

I didn’t care about my name for a long time. I was so used to people butchering my name that it became normal for me to have people say my name wrong. I didn’t want to correct them because I didn’t know how nor did I want to sound petty. I understand that not everyone speak Hmong, so they won’t be able to pronounce it correctly. They probably can’t even hear the slight change in tonal sounds.

Even some Hmong people mispronounce my name. Instead of saying Maiv Npauj, they would say Maiv Npaub. Why make such a fuss about a slight change in tones? Npauj and Npaub mean the same thing! Well, it’s like calling Ana (On-ah) Anna (An-ah) or saying “An-Jah-LEEt-a” instead of “An-Gal-EET-a.” There is a difference!

Even Hmong people mispronounce my name. Instead of saying Maiv Npauj, they would say Maiv Npaub.

Someone once told me that a person’s name is their brand. It should be the most important word in a person’s personal vocabulary. It should be carried with pride and be corrected if mispronounced by others. That person was my Intro to Speech professor in college. On the first day of class, she asked me how I say my name in Hmong. “I know that people who have foreign names are accommodating. They tend to change how they pronounce their names so English-speakers could say it. I don’t wan’t to know how I would say it; I want to know how you say it.” It wasn’t until years later when I stumbled upon a video recording of my informative speech that I was reminded of the importance of my name.

I find myself using Maiv Npauj more and more these days. Sometimes I feel self-conscious using the correct pronunciation, even to Hmong individuals! I feel as if I’m saying it incorrectly when it is the right way to say it. Or I feel as if I’m, all of a sudden, changing my name on people (Your name isn’t Maiv Npauj; it’s MaiBao, I hear myself say every time I use the Hmong pronunciation). I guess it’s going to take some time getting used to my name when I have told people, “It’s no big deal,” or “It’s okay,” for so many years when they mispronounce my name.

BOF Day of Action: Sacramento, CA

Hello, everyone!

I’ve already posted this on my Facebook Page, but I’ll post it here for those who do not have a Facebook account.

The Building Our Future Sacramento Team has been working very hard at organizing our upcoming BOF event. If you are in the Sacramento area, I would like to invite you to join us this Saturday, October 25, 2014. This public forum will be a space to address and take steps to solve domestic violence and abusive international marriages in our Hmong community.
BOF flyer FINAL

Building Our Future: Champions Against Abusive International Marriages

The first time I heard about abusive international marriages (AIM) was at the Hmong National Development Conference in Fresno, CA in April 2013. Presented by Kabzuag Vaj (Freedom Inc), Nancy Xiong (George Mason University), and Pa Vang (University of Wisconsin), “Abusive International Marriage – Transnational Domestic Violence” was a workshop to present a report about AIM  and discuss how it has affected Hmong families in Wisconsin. The report, titled “Abusive International Marriages: Hmong Advocates Organizing in Wisconsin,” was the result of advocates working collaboratively with community leaders, victims/survivors, and allies to collect stories of AIM, identify its root causes, and strategize resolutions.

Building Our Future 2013 flyer
Building Our Future 2013 flyer

What is “abusive international marriages?” First, let’s start by defining what an international marriage is. It is when someone from one country marries an individual from another country. For example, a person from the United States marrying someone from Thailand. An international marriage becomes abusive when it falls under these characteristics:

  • Old men marrying underage girls with age differences of 20-70 years
  • Older men using their sons to marry underage girls
  • Forced marriages
  • Forced divorces—in these instances divorces are only legally but not culturally
  • Misrepresenting marital status to brides
  • “Marry-and-dump”/transnational abandonment
  • Marriages as business transactions
  • Marriage brokers promoting underage brides
  • Arrangements driven by poverty

Abusive international marriage is a form of domestic violence that involves deceit, fraud, manipulation, and sexual exploitation. It is a trend that is rising in the recent years. It impacts almost everyone in the Hmong community.

BOF AIM
Build Our Future 2013 flyer

Building Our Future (BOF) is a national and transnational community campaign, founded by Kabzuag Vaj, KaYing Yang, and Bo Thao-Urabe, that launched in October 2013. BOF focuses on building a violence-free society for the Hmong. It addresses gender-based violence, such as domestic violence, sexual assault, and abusive international marriages. This grassroots movement strives to “build strong Hmong families who are free from abuse that thrive from generation to generation,” as stated on their Facebook page.

The first Building Our Future Call to Action Day was on October 25, 2013. Organizers and advocates from the U.S. and Laos united together to bring awareness to domestic violence and abusive international marriages in the form of vigils, forums, teach-ins, and radio talk shows. California held the BOF Call to Action Day in Sacramento.

This year, I am working with a group of BOF advocates and organizers in Northern California. Our slogan is “Champions Against Abusive International Marriages.” We will be holding two events on October 25th, 2014; one in Sacramento and one in Fresno. Our goals for this year is to promote the Building Our Future movement, address how AIM has impacted our community, and to empower community members to support victims and survivors of domestic violence and AIM.

I want to point out that advocates and organizers are not against international marriages. The Hmong are displaced all over the world due to imperialism and war. Family reunification through international marriages is a must to some families. We support international marriages and relationships. It’s when individuals engage in practices through international marriages that exploit individuals that we must speak up against abusive international marriages.

More information will be provided about the location and time of the Call to Action Day events, nationally and internationally. Please visit the Building Our Future Facebook page for more information as they update in the coming weeks.