Having a hard-to-pronounce name can sometimes cause a lot of grief.

What’s in a Name? When They Can’t Get it Right

Their names may have caused them grief, but they’ve never wanted anything different

Having a hard-to-pronounce name can sometimes cause a lot of grief.

Illustration by Vivian Lai

Words by Samantha Pak

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?

While many people don’t give their names a second thought, for those whose names are just a little different, thoughts about what they’re called can be a daily occurrence. But just because others might find it difficult to say their names correctly, it doesn’t mean they wished they were called something different.

Roll call, the struggle is real

Aurick Sonexaysana has never wished for anything different because his first name is unique and his last name connects him to his family and Laotian culture.

Aurick Sonexaysana

When Aurick Sonexaysana (OR-rick son-SIGH-sah-nah) was born, his parents didn’t give him a Laotian name they knew people wouldn’t be able to pronounce. Instead, they gave him a Gemanic name people couldn’t pronounce.

The Seattle-area native could count on teachers, especially substitute teachers, to struggle with his name during roll call. In the beginning, the mispronunciations used to annoy him but as he got older, he understood.

“I knew my name wasn’t very common,” Sonexaysana says.

While teachers may have struggled with Aurick, it was nothing compared to Sonexaysana. Sometimes at roll call, they would even say, “I’m not even going to try.”  He got it. His name is 11 letters long and has an X in it.

“They don’t know how to chop it up,” he says.

There was one instance growing up when Sonexaysana really appreciated his last name. After he’d been named student of the month, his name was added to that week’s spelling test. But unlike his classmates’ names, his name had a star next to it and was considered a bonus word.

“It made me feel special,” Sonexaysana says.

Despite the struggles he’s had with his last name, Sonexaysana’s never wished he had a different, easier-to-pronounce name. Sonexaysana is a part of his identity, not only as a Laotian but also within his family as the name comes from his great grandfather’s first name.

Carrying the pride of their people

Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker would never change their name, even if it might take others a moment to get it right.

Ha'aheo Auwae-Dekker

Ha’aheo Auwae-Dekker (HA-ah-HEY-oh OW-why DEK-er) is native Hawaiian, Chinese, Filipinx, Portuguese and white and their name reflects their Hawaiian roots.

Born in Hawaii but raised on the mainland, they wish they had grown up on the islands. Things would have been easier—not only would more people be able to correctly pronounce their name, but Auwae-Dekker would have been exposed to the Hawaiian language, culture and classes.

Common mispronunciations of Auwae-Dekker’s name include Ah-ha and Ha-ha.

“I hate it. It makes me feel disrespected,” they say, adding that they’d rather have people ask how to pronounce their name than to have it mispronounced.

Auwae-Dekker, whose family settled in Seattle, has stories about not only their peers teasing and making fun of them, but adults as well, including a substitute teacher who called them “island girl.”

And during freshman year of college, a Spanish professor poked fun at Auwae-Dekker’s name after being told how to correctly pronounce it. He told Auwae-Dekker—in front of the whole class—that if they didn’t want their name mispronounced, their mother shouldn’t have given them that name. Auwae-Dekker transferred out of that class after that first day.

In Hawaiian culture, names have a lot of meaning. Ha’aheo is connected to Auwae-Dekker’s great grandfather and means “to cherish with pride,” so they carry the pride of the Hawaiian people in their heart. Auwae-Dekker plans to pass on that pride when the time comes.

“I’m just looking forward to when I can have kids [who] have these beautiful Hawaiian names,” they say.

If you can pronounce Schwarzenegger, you can pronounce Nauchara

Despite the difficulties others may have with her name, Nauchara Keo has never wanted to change it.

Nauchara Keo

For Nauchara Keo (NAH-chah-RAH KE-oh), her Cambodian name is a badge of honor.

It’s a way to honor her heritage, which has always been a source of pride. 

“I made sure people knew I was Cambodian,” Keo, who hails from Lynnwood, Washington, says.

She always found a way to bring her culture to school, choosing Cambodia when it came to assignments and projects like Model United Nations. Her feelings about her name were a little more complicated.

“It took me a while to be proud of the name that I have,” Keo says.

Part of that came from being the only Nauchara she knows. In sixth grade, her teacher even asked if she could go by “Neechy”—though Keo is not sure why. Maybe because it rhymes with lychee, Keo says, noting the racist connotations there as lychee is a fruit eaten in many Asian cultures.

“The Asian one with the weird name,” she suggested as what that teacher could have been thinking about her at the time.

Keo doesn’t understand why people are afraid or intimidated by her different-looking name, or why they don’t bother trying or insist on changing her name or giving her a nickname.

“You can pronounce Schwarzenegger but you can’t pronounce Nauchara?” she points out.

It may have been a journey for her to get to this point, but she did get there. And even though she may have wished for a more western name, Keo never actually considered changing her name.

“I look like a Nauchara,” she says.

Published on May 15, 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.