blogging

What it means to have a Hmong name

While in the park, I met a kid. He seems to be a middle school student and a very talkative one. As I sit in the swing resting after a jog, he joined me as his father and younger brother play in the sandbox. Before I could escape what I saw coming, he started to ask me a question which led to more questions. Until he finally asks me, “do you like your name? I like your name. What does your name mean to you? Mine means how much my grandfather loved me.”

My name is Mai Kou Lor.

I am sure that many of you got confused seeing my name. I know that many people, including my friends, professors, and coworkers, do not usually get my name right on the first try. If they do, they get excited. Even I get excited about having one less person to teach pronouncing my name. It sounds funny, but it is true. My first name is pronounced “my coo.”

Growing up, whenever the teacher calls roll on the first day, I always know that I have to tell the teacher how to pronounce my name. It is something that I was used to doing. My full name is Mai Kou. That space in the middle drives me crazy sometimes, and even some of my friends think Kou is my middle name. When I tell them that that is how my parents wrote my name on my birth certificate, they go “oh” and then followed by “that is a lovely name.” I don’t expect my teachers to call me Mai Kou and allowed them to call me Mai, along with my peers. My closest friends call me by my full name, Kou, or other terms of endearment. For example, Kiki, which is my nickname or rice bunny. Still, some of my closest friends call me Mai, and it is all good.

Some Hmong students had American names like Kelly, Rose, Jim, Johnathon, Annie, and so on. At one point, some of the Hmong students who did not have American names started giving themselves American names. It never crossed my mind to do the same because I love my name. It is the name that my parents gave me and defines who I am. Why would I trade the name my parents gave me for another name? Although, there were times when I did wish I had an American name for one reason. It would be easier to pronounce, and I would not have to worry about correcting anyone’s pronunciation. Surprisingly, my name has not been mispronounced during my graduations. Thank goodness for practice routines.

Now that I am older and many of my friends and acquaintances are married. I am starting to see a trend where they give their children Korean, Thai, and Chinese names. The majority with Korean names as Hallyu wave is growing bigger. It is their children and not mine, so they can give whatever names they want to their children. However, it does remind me of something that my late father and grandpa used to say. “We gave you a Hmong name because you’re Hmong. It’s part of your culture and let people know who you are.”

True to their words, wherever I go, the two most questions I always received are 1) How do you pronounce your full name and 2) where are your parents from? The storytelling does not stop after the second question. People that are interested in my culture go on asking more questions. Some questions even challenge my knowledge and perceptions of my own culture.

I could not help but silently laugh at the boy’s question as I give him my response. I do love my Hmong name, and I would not trade it for another name. My Hmong name means a lot to me. It let other people know that my family origin did not come from the US but that I am the new beginning of my family’s history in the US.

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