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?
From superstitions to nicknames to just making life easier, people choose to go by names different from their given ones for a variety of reasons. The name you’re born with doesn’t have to be the name you’re stuck with your whole life but that doesn’t mean you can’t come around to loving your given name, despite the hardships it may have caused you.
An inclusive name to determine her path
When Heena Khatri (HEE-nah KUH-tree) was a little girl, she asked her parents how they decided on her first name, which reflects her Hindu upbringing. They told her the date and time of her birth determined the first letter of her name. Other contenders included Hariganga and Harsha.
“They made a good choice,” Khatri says about her Fijian mother and Indian father.
She’s happy with her name now, but when she was younger, Khatri wanted a “normal” name—not one people changed to Hannah when they first read it. “Why can’t I just be Christine?” Khatri says about how she felt back in the day.
Heena is also a Muslim name and Khatri, now an atheist, likes how inclusive her name is. But while her first name has positive connotations, her last name is a different story.
When Khatri’s family first moved to the United States, they lived in Sacramento, California. Things didn’t work out and they moved to Washington state. Her family believes your name determines your life path and their last name was considered bad luck. So after some time in the Evergreen State, they changed their last name to their caste name. Khatri was about 10 at the time.
A lot of questions came with the name change and Khatri spent months explaining things. But as complicated as it may have been at the time, it appears to have worked. Khatri still lives in Washington in the city of Bellevue.
Learning to not accommodate others
Leilani Ambion (lay-LON-ee AM-bee-on) loves her Hawaiian first name. It’s beautiful. She loves the way it looks and can often be seen doodling it. “I accept it, I hug it and I love it,” she says.
But that hasn’t always been the case. Ambion, who is Filipina, spent her younger years trying to fit in amongst her peers. But as a brown kid at a predominantly white school, in a predominantly white school district, it wasn’t easy. Her name didn’t make things easier.
“It was always a matter of butchering it,” Ambion says about teachers during roll call. “I didn’t want to feel like [my name] stuck out more than I already did, or felt I did.”
Then in sixth grade, her teacher told her the origins of her name and Ambion’s feelings began to change. But it was a double-edged sword. It might have been cool to have a Hawaiian name but Ambion is not Hawaiian—nor does she have any family on the islands. So she sometimes feels guilty of cultural appropriation. But Ambion’s name comes from Leilani Lanes, a bowling alley in Seattle her father passed every day on his bus ride to work.
When she was younger, Ambion wanted people to call her Lila. Now she sees how she was accommodating others. As a minority, she said you’re so used to trying to make things easier for others and trying not to stand out from the crowd. Appreciation and pride in being different comes with age and experience.
Training others to get it right
When Wynn Denson was born, her parents named her Nguyễn Đăng Từ Nguyên (Win? Daang Tuuh Win). Her family moved from Vietnam to the United States when she was 2 and when she started school in Seattle, she became Nguyen Nguyen. While it’s easy to assume her parents had given her the same first and last name, Vietnamese is a tonal language. So Denson’s full name has a melodic quality and the first and last names sound very different.
In 1999, Denson’s family moved up to a suburb of Seattle. There, more people had difficulty with her name and she became so sick of it that in her senior year of high school, she began putting “Wynn Wynn” in parentheses next to her name on assignments so her teachers knew how to say her name.
“I kind of trained them,” she says.
That year was a transition year as six days after her 18th birthday, Denson legally changed her name to Wynn Wynn. Denson's mother was a little upset that she also changed her last name but Denson told her she would probably change it once she got married, which she did.
Despite her name changes, that’s all that has changed for Denson when it comes to her Vietnamese roots. She’s still connected to other aspects of her culture such as the language and food. And her parents still call her Từ Nguyên. To her, all of these things help bridge together the pieces of her identity as a Vietnamese American.
Published on May 1, 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.