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.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. One thing useful to remember is rising beyond the perceived “brand” of one’s name. It can be tough for young kid. This where parents can be helpful to explain to a child the meaning of their name.

    I have Chinese middle name which parents didn’t think to tell their daughters. It means Orchid which is common Chinese female name to give. I didn’t know until my early 20’s.

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  2. Maiv Npauj I would love to hear a recording of you pronouncing your name! I’ve always known you as MaiBao and I know that I probably couldn’t hear, let alone produce the tonal differences between the Americanized version of your name and your real name, but with practice and effort I could get closer.

    I find names super fascinating. Heather is not a common name outside English-speaking countries so when I travel abroad and get called Heder or Helen in Spain, Heza in Japan or Eda in Turkey I recognize that most languages don’t have the “th” sound which makes my name so difficult. But I think part of the reason it doesn’t bother me at all is that I never dealt with it growing up, and I think that probably plays a huge role in how we perceive others’ pronunciations of our name.

    My partner is Turkish and his name is Göktuğ, like “go too” but with a k in the middle… kinda. For years I was intimidated to call him my his name but over time and with lots of practice I can now say it perfectly and intimidate other people! Ha. But I think his perception of the butchering of his name (he’s been called Gertrude before by old ladies) is similar to mine in that he moved to the US as an adult, almost, and has accepted that English speakers just don’t know how to pronounce the ö, let alone the ğ. Most of his friends just call him G, but those who are really close do make an effort.

    No matter how other people say our names, and whether or not you feel compelled to correct them, I do think it’s important that you introduce yourself with the pronunciation you would *like* others to use, if they could. I feel like it’s somewhat akin to calling someone Alex when he prefers Alexander, it’s a matter of respect or lack thereof. I read somewhere that if an infant hears the sounds of any language before 6 months then it will be able to pronounce them later on in life. I wish we could all be exposed to all the sounds of human communication!

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    1. Thank you, Heather. I have been using the correct pronunciation of my name and it feels weird. Like I said in my blog post, I feel as if I’m telling them a lie because I’ve used MaiBao for so long. I’m just waiting for when a friend tells the person I’m introducing myself to to say, “Your name isn’t Maiv Npauj. It’s MaiBao!”

      The interesting thing is that even when I say, “Maiv Npauj,” everyone would say “MaiBao” back to me. It’s as close as one can get.

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  3. Maiv Npauj is a beautiful Hmong girl name, which means a beautiful moth. However, when it’s phonetically spelled in a different language, it’s completely off the pronunciation. The Hmong have a complex and unique naming tradition that young Hmong don’t understand. I have addressed this in length in my book that will be coming out in about five or six months.

    I visit your blog every once in a while to find out what are discussed. I enjoy the beauty of language and the beautiful and rich word choices people bring to discussions from a variety of perspectives. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if I can contribute anything.

    Ge Xiong or Nkaj Xauv Xyooj

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