Whether they connect us with our family and cultural heritage, or help us stand out in our careers, names hold different significance for different people.
In this series, we speak with folks about their names, what they mean to them and try to answer the question, What’s in a Name?
A name can tell people any number of things, including someone’s cultural background. And while having an “ethnic” name may have hindered a person’s career prospects in the past, more people are embracing what makes them different and using it to their advantage.
A Cambodian woman directed the show you just watched
As a theater director, Erika Chamroeun Clark (AIR-ruh-KAH jahm-RAHN CLARK) makes it a point to include her Cambodian middle name in her works.
She’s proud of her name and likes that she’s able to showcase it more. There aren’t many Cambodian directors in theater and with such a western sounding first and last name, she wants audiences to know who’s directing the show.
“It’s proof that I am Asian,” she says about her middle name. “And at least now, I can spell it and pronounce it better.”
Because as a girl, Clark, whose mother is Cambodian and father is white, struggled with it so much that she hated her middle name.
Growing up about 45 minutes north of Atlanta, Georgia, Clark didn’t know many other Cambodians outside of her family. As a result, she wasn’t exposed to other Khmer names. She felt like she wasn’t allowed to be proud of her Cambodian heritage.
It wasn’t until she moved to California for college (University of California Irvine) that she found herself surrounded by other Cambodians. Clark, who now lives in Huntington Beach, California, says meeting others with a similar background helped normalize her middle name and led to her being proud of it. Now when she tells people her middle name, they tell her it’s beautiful.
“That’s really cool for me,” Clark says.
A sign of a good and meaningful life
Since childhood, Mỹ-Lan Dodd (ME-lawn DODD) has always been on the shy side.
So when people mispronounced her Vietnamese first name, which translates to beautiful orchid, she wouldn’t always correct them. She’s gotten used to responding to all sorts of variations of her name—a common one being “Milan,” like the Italian city. The only time she’s made sure her name was said correctly was at graduation ceremonies and when she’s given talks, writing the pronunciation down for the announcer.
But Vietnamese is a very tonal language so Dodd, whose mother is Vietnamese and father is white, acknowledges, “even I don’t pronounce my name correctly.” When she visited Vietnam, the locals told her she was saying Mỹ-Lan wrong.
Dodd kept her maiden name when she got married. She likes her name and had worked so hard to have the things she had under that name. One of those being her job as an attorney for a nonprofit organization focused on alleviating poverty through land rights reform.
At the nonprofit, the naming convention for staff email addresses is to use the individual’s first name and last initial, making the beginning of Dodd’s email, “my-land.” And because of her organization’s focus, Dodd says people often mistake her email address for the nonprofit’s general contact. While this may be a bit comical, Dodd says the coincidence has also shown her that she is doing something good and meaningful with her life by helping transform people’s lives in connection to land ownership.
“It’s got to be a sign,” Dodd says.
Her name is her brand
As a broadcast journalist, Patranya Bhoolsuwan (pa-TRON-yah pool-swan) contemplated changing her Thai name when she started in the business about 25 years ago.
In the industry, it’s just as important to be marketable as it is to be a good journalist. People changing their on-air names to something more pronounceable (read: white friendly) is common practice.
While Bhoolsuwan still thought about changing her on-air last name during her early days, a colleague told her she should only do it if she was asked and if her livelihood depended on that job. If she was hired with her real name—and changing her name wasn’t a condition of the job—she should stick with it. So she did. Bhoolsuwan, who had been going by Pat, also eventually started using her full first name on the air as well.
“I’m starting to really like my first name,” the Las Vegas resident says.
Bhoolsuwan was only asked to consider changing her name once. But at that point, her name had become her brand. She wasn’t going to change it.
In addition, when she began appearing on the air, with her full name on the lower third of the TV screen, members of the Thai community noticed and reached out—because they related to her.
Bhoolsuwan left TV news in 2019 and started a media consulting firm where her name is now literally her brand. It’s called Patranya Media LLC.
“Now I’m glad that I have a Thai name,” she says.
Published on May 22, 2023
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.
Art by Vivian Lai
Vivian Lai is an experienced L.A.-based graphic and UI designer with a proven track record of problem-solving for diverse clients across industries. She is highly skilled in design thinking, user experience, and visual communication and is committed to staying up-to-date with the latest design trends and techniques. Vivian has been recognized for her exceptional work with numerous industry awards.