© Sharon Chang and MultiAsian Families Blog, Oct 24 2012.
My son and I went to his best friend's birthday party last weekend. Of six children, my son was the only child of color. Of nine adults, myself and one other man were the only grownups of color. He had a noticeable non-American accent so I feel fairly confident in writing that English is likely his second language. Other than this observation, I try to make no assumptions here about his heritage. He stopped me at one point and asked what my son's name is. "Kazuo," I answered. He was profoundly confused. He tried to repeat, "O Cosmo. That's cool." I sighed inwardly.
"Cosmo" is the most common mispronunciation of my son's name. My husband and I felt strongly about picking a Japanese name for our child before he was born. His middle and surnames are American English. We wanted his Asian heritage to be strongly present. Being very aware of the difficulties growing up with a non-English name in this society, we tried to pick a name we thought most native American English speakers would pronounce easily. To our surprise and deep frustration, "Kazuo" (pronounced KAH-zoo-oh), has confounded person after person after person. We both grew up with extensive exposure to Japanese. My husband, because he is half Japanese. Myself, because my father grew up in Taiwan during the Japanese occupation. The pronunciation of "Kazuo" seemed straightforward. To us. But we realized after the fact that "u-o" doesn't really occur in the English language. Strangers either repeat a name back that's familiar (like Cosmo),
stumble and mumble over it trying to quickly find some convenient
nickname, or avert their eyes and refuse to even try. Also because of the English word "kazoo," native English speakers - if they can even say the name at all - frequently default to placing the emphasis on the second syllable (kah-ZOO-oh) which sounds absurd to me and my husband.
I attempted to help the man, "No. It's KAH-zoo-oh." He tried to repeat again with no success. As I frequently need to do, I finally offered the spelling, "No Kazuo. K-A-Z-U-O." The man tried again, this time with limited success. Looking distressed, irritated and maybe even a little angry, he exclaimed loudly, "Jesus!" We then launched quickly into some stupid conversation about how Kazuo could go by nicknames if he "needed" to. The man offered me several unsolicited suggestions, like "Kaz" or "K." And in some attempt to make him feel better and more comfortable, I also shared Kazuo's common middle name, "James," explaining my son had an easy English alternative if he ever wanted it. The man seemed relieved to hear this.
Later in the party, the kids were all sitting around a table waiting to eat cake. The adults stood behind watching. A loud White woman (whom I had found out minutes before is an early childhood research psychologist with a PhD in Infant Psychology) tried to help Kazuo. "Cosmo, you're doing such a good job waiting," she encouraged him. "Cosmo needs a piece of cake," she turned loudly on the cake-cutter, "Cosmo's been waiting so patiently. He needs a piece of cake." Over and over and over she said his name wrong. Every mispronunciation felt like a gut punch to me. A loud voice resounded in my mind, you need to stop her. Just tap her on the shoulder and tell her excuse me you're saying my son's name wrong. But, completely intimidated by her volume, the size of her spiritual presence, her impressive academic credentials, and by a large audience - I said nothing. And, I might add, none of the other adults in the room who knew how to say my son's name (including the hosts of the party), said anything either. As far as I know, the woman still thinks my son's name is Cosmo.
Three days later, my shame, hurt and anger surrounding this incident are palpable and continue to grow. I could see my son sitting there across from me, looking in my eyes, absorbing every word. And I didn't defend him. I made excuses or didn't say anything at all. I wonder what he took away from that party. Does he already hate his Japanese name? Does he already feel different? None of the other White kids had non-English names. When he sees his own mother struggling to defend a personal, beautiful choice rooted in family heritage, does it make him want to reject being Asian? I shared the story with my husband and we have both been edgy and volcanic since. Why? Because it's not just about a name. It's about so much more. It's about a society that has never welcomed immigrants with open arms. It's about a society that still, to this day, expects everyone who lives here should speak English. Interestingly, in his Mandarin class earlier that morning, I heard a White mother say to her mixed race Asian child that the teacher was speaking Chinese and "English is the language we speak in this country." And unfortunately, yes, it continues to be about race. Let's be honest, it's hard - maybe impossible - to separate race and ethnicity. My son is English, Welsh, French Canadian, German, Slovakian, Taiwanese and Japanese. Within the walls of our home he is everything, he is gorgeous and he is perfect.
But at that party he was Asian, different and not White.