My 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.