‘Tigers die and they leave their skins.
People die and they leave their names.’
PTSD is real but it is very rarely explained to you if you are not a war veteran. You are a hot mess unable to articulate the out of body experience that you go through as you are under the onslaught of hate crime news and images.
I never cry. But I cried when Trump won. And I cried when a murderer shot and killed Asian women – a hate crime at the apex of xenophobia and misogyny. The murders sent me into a frantic whirlpool of high anxiety. I got triggered big time. After a week of profound numbness, I started to sketch out the crux to my suffering: racial trauma compounded by a personal story of domestic violence and sexual harassment. Turns out that the body and mind never forget.
The amount of shit I need to unpack is unlikely to be sorted by journaling. But I have to do something. Let me start ‘small’. Let me start by saying that anti-asian racism is not new, and is not mild. Micro-agressions cripple us. And today I am going to start with our names.
While I am not claiming that Asians are the sole victims of unfortunate nicknaming (who has not been given annoying pet names by their grannies, lovers or besties??), I am talking about the toxic lifelong feeling of being a bother or embarrassing others by your 10 letter first name. I am talking about being nicknamed on the spot by complete strangers, or worse, people in positions of power and the symbolic violence that comes with it.
The below is an everyday reality for me and many Asian people.
‘-Sorry for butchering your name but it is , you have to admit, very complicated. I am going to call you Sam or Soum.
-I would rather not.
-Ok, what shorter name can I call you?
-C’mon help me here. It is very long!’
I always think about retorting ‘So is Jean-Baptiste or Carmichael’ but I know better. The length of my name is not what we are talking about right now. As I was being well reminded of by every teacher, every year:
‘Sou……well you know who you are so can you raise your hand now?’
It is a vicious circle of embarrassment for you, the person calling you and everyone else witnessing the exchange; a circle that you learn from a young age to break by:
- taking a western name. I have seen some folks taking notes for inspo while watching a French dubbed ‘The Little House on the Prairie’. SMH
- raising your hand as quickly as if you were on a starting block, snatching your name tag right way at work conferences to prevent the reception staff from frantically looking for your name on the guest list because ‘it is so exotic’
- rehearsing mnemonic tips for folks to say your name, to make it easy on them
The latter eventually got on my nerves – big time – as I was increasingly navigating in circles of accomplished grown ups. People could figure out complex financial algorithms but could not attempt to articulate 3 syllables together?
For the longest time, I was not fully aware of how such tactics were symbolic violence asserting subordination, squeezing the space I could claim in the world.
How can you fight for what you are owed when your first instinct is to not bother, when from the moment you meet someone you are made to feel that your identity is taken away from you by a simple ‘I will call you Sam, ok?’.
My name is Soumountha and I will stop telling folks that ‘it is like ‘Samantha’ with a ‘ou’’. It is nothing like Samantha. It is actually a gender neutral name, mostly given to men. My dad fought with my maternal great grandmother to give me this name and he keeps telling me that it means ‘Great person’. He is probably bullshitting me; but I will own gladly this bullshit.
Learning is tough. Becoming an Ally is tough. But calling someone their real name should not be. Don’t be frustrated at someone who lets you battle in the mud of pronunciation and syllables and tonals; be grateful.
If you want to know more about how to become an Ally, you can follow those social media accounts among others:
Painting by me.