What's in a Name?

When my parents named me, I doubt they anticipated the unusual spelling would play a crucial role in my life. 

I mean, they didn't give me an 'exotic' name, dotted unusual combinations of consonants (“zh” “ts” “xh”). The type of name often deemed unpronounceable by most adults, who opt for last names instead: "Miss...Chen?" "Mister...Lee?" 

"Lessa" is short and relatively non-threatening.

Just a slightly funky spelling, featuring an extra consonant and a substitute vowel. 

 

Many assume my parents made some n00b immigrant error and chose the spelling by mistake.

Nope. They absolutely bestowed it upon me. Well, my sister (6 years old at the time) actually decided the spelling. My parents stuck with it. 

 

A person encountering my name for the first time usually assumes it's pronounced less-uh. Like Jessa from GIRLS but with a L.

 

(It's actually pronounced "Lisa," like from the Simpsons.)


As an adult, I tend to laugh off the misunderstanding.
Agree it's a little odd, but hey, it's my name. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Not Leesa.
Nor Lesa.
Definitely not Leessa. 
Just Lessa.


As a kid, I would apologize in a small voice and sweat profusely while correcting the mispronunciation. 


Roll Call became my Lunch Box moment. 

An occasion that's usually mundane was my absolute nightmare. It made me feel so other. It was this—not where to sit at lunch, not first-day-of-school outfits, not who will be my 4th grade bff—that I was most nervous about starting a new year. From kindergarten through college, I absolutely dreaded it. 

One day in elementary school, I had cried about my name so much that my dad offered to take me to City Hall to legally change it. (Couldn’t bring myself to do it then, but it was nice to know I had the option.)

I attended school with many of the same kids from pre-school throughout high school, so most of my classmates could anticipate what was about to happen. You could hear stifled giggles as the teacher made their way down Castle, Chang, Chekel, Cho, and then... Chung. 

An exchange that usually lasts a few seconds ("First Last?" "Here.") stretches into minutes of commentary about naming practices, asians, parents. All the while, I become increasingly sweaty and dizzy.

 

In my honors chemistry class, the cold metal lab stool morphed into a slip-n-slide as my teacher commented: Leave it to Asian parents to complicate* a simple name.

Did all the Bunsen burners suddenly ignite? It was the first time I felt my heart pulsing in my ears.

 

Then there was my high school health teacher, who drew inspiration from the spelling to "give [their] kid a messed up name like that."

In a class that required us to watch a video of a live birth and study slides diagraming genital warts and other STDs, this moment made me feel the most uncomfortable. 


When I began working full-time, my name became one amongst many on the email chain. At an agency of 500+ people, this brought the unique situation of conversing with a coworker for months at time before my name ever came up IRL.

On multiple occasions, I’ve introduced myself to a new team member or client, when a teammate overhears and says, “Wait. Really?!” 

An ECD I worked for over a year who was absolutely certain my name was Less-uh. I was too nervous to correct it. (Too much sweating involved.)

I recognize it's on me to acknowledge the mispronunciation when it happens.

Correct it early on. BUT, IT'S EXHAUSTING. It's not fun to correct other people. It almost always makes the conversation thereafter stilted and uncomfortable. I already overanalyze everything. In my work, I can be a bit of a notorious pixel-pusher—now I have to be Pronunciation Police, too?!

Many times I take advantage of those innocuous “interesting facts” in agency-wide intro emails to mention the pronunciation of my name. (Work smarter, not harder.)


One day, my dad half-jokingly suggested that I just go by Less-uh. At least in professional settings. To make it easier for everyone involved. 

Two decades of awkward pronunciation conversations rapidly flashed through my mind. My name—the spelling and pronunciation—instigated many an existential crisis, but I couldn't amend it now. All the (literal) sweat and tears would be for nothing. I refused to give in to society’s expectations of comfort and linguistic logic. I refused to surrender to the tyranny of phonetic rules in the English language. 

From that moment, I committed to press on with Lessa. 

 

I don't know what it's like to exist in this world with a name like Jessica, Ann, or Mary: a name that is acknowledged and accepted without much deliberation. 

Then, I moved to Japan.

Here, I'm simply リサ (ri-sa). The alphabet is phonetic, so there's really no mistaking it. 

I briefly contemplated going by リッサ (ri-ssa) to nod to my English spelling, but it seemed like a lot more trouble than it's worth. 

It's still a mixture of surprise and relief to not have to explain how my name is pronounced or how it came to be spelled that way. Mostly because my Japanese is pretty much limited to short introductions, ordering food, and inviting a friend to the movies. 

 

I'm just リサさん。
リサちゃん, if we are friendly. 
チャンリサ様 if we are not. 

 

To be completely honest, I kind of miss the exchange. The absence of that conversation made me realize it was an exchange I'd grown used to—fond of even. It was part of me introducing my actual self. A glimpse into the contradictions and idiosyncrasies that make me...well, me.  

In a couple weeks, I start grad school here in Japan. My classmates will likely be international students (留学生) from various countries around the world. Our common language will be English (as it's the base language for the program) but we're living in Japan...so I wonder which name I'll go by.

 

Regardless, wish me luck.
And a decent anti-perspirant. 

School portrait, c. 1st grade. 

School portrait, c. 1st grade. 

*I may have sugar-coated this memory, as a few of my classmates remember something much more crass than that. There were so many other Asian students in the chemistry class, I like to think she considered us in on the joke...appeal to our bottled up angst against our Tiger parents.

Lessa Chung