A month into my first semester as an exchange student in the United States, I was at an inter-city bus stop waiting to get to St. Louis. I only mentioned my surname—Lung, pronounced “loong”—when I checked in with the receptionist. It was a quiet Wednesday noon and I was the only customer there.
Shortly after settling down in the waiting room next door, I heard faint chatter from the office. “She probably knows it’s embarrassing,” the receptionist told a white-bearded guy standing next to him. He burst out in laughter.
“That’s a she? I can’t un-see that!” the bearded man bawled, his voice echoing against the bare walls, including the glass panel that stood between their office and where I sat.
I froze. Did they just… Were they laughing at me?
I stared at the bearded guy through the glass. His face dropped, and he slowly backed away to the other end of the room and disappeared. The office was dead quiet.
I was mortified. For the first time in my life, I was made fun of outside the comfort of my own culture. By strangers who were at least twice my age, and before my very eyes and ears.
This wasn’t something I had learnt to have patience or forgiveness for. The humiliation overwhelmed any ounce of self-deprecating humor I had.
I remained silent in my seat, like the fourth grader I was when my classmate told me my name sounded like a swear word.
My name—my given name—is Fuk-yu (馥瑜).
Call me Natalie
I was born and raised in Hong Kong, where both Cantonese and English are official languages, thanks to its colonial past. Most official documents and signs are bilingual, including our names on our identification documents.
For many Hong Kong people, their English name may be the Romanization of their Chinese name, such as the billionaire Li Ka-shing. Many others choose to adopt a conventional English name like Paul or Mary or, in a famous case, Jackie Chan. Ultimately, it is their choice, or their parents’, to include either or both of those English names on their ID.
My parents decided to only include the Romanization of my name, Lung Fuk-yu, on my birth certificate. They wanted to leave the choice to me when I could make changes to my ID at the age of 18. When my mother discovered that I liked dancing to any music that came on TV at an early age, she chose the English name “Natalie,” after the American actress Natalie Wood who starred in the hit musical West Side Story. It was one of many Hollywood movies whose sweethearts and heartthrobs my mother swooned over as a teenager.
But Natalie was a lifestyle choice, not a legal name. It doesn’t appear on my ID or other official documents. So my Romanized Chinese name is my legal name, and that has been a source of awkwardness for myself, and others, nearly all my life.
Before college, I went to an English-language school and always dreaded the first week of class when our teachers would call out our names, as shown on ID, in alphabetical order to take attendance. I always knew when I was about to be called because the teacher’s head would tilt sideways with a slight frown.
“Um… Fff.. Fuke?”
Before they could finish, I waved my hand frantically. “I’m here!”
“Fook yu? Did I pronounce your name correctly?”
“Just call me Natalie,” I replied as I felt my face turn red. I wanted to apologize to the teacher. This became my coping mechanism.
My name is actually pronounced “Fook-yu” in Cantonese, and “Fu-yu” in Mandarin, but most Cantonese speakers, even bilingual ones, wouldn’t immediately register it as a curse word because of the slight tonal difference compared with the English pronunciation.
It wasn’t until the equivalent of fourth grade that I learned about my name’s English connotations for the first time. A girl in my class told me that my name sounded like a swear word. I was nine years old and had no clue what it meant. All I knew was that it was bleeped out in movies, so it must be bad.
When that dawned on me, it felt like Adam and Eve feeling ashamed of their nudity after biting into the forbidden fruit. I had taken a bite out of the fruit of knowledge of good and evil and there was no turning back. Ever since then, I became acutely aware of the pronunciation of my name.
Every smirk or reference to my name as foul language is like a stab at my parents, when in fact they had given me a beautiful name. “Fuk yu” literally translates to “fragrant jade,” a gem that radiates light and symbolizing a lasting legacy.
Even so, I decided not to officially add “Natalie” when I turned 18. It was college application season, and any additional paperwork was discouraging enough for me to let go of the idea of modifying my ID.
Besides, by that time, I had learnt to take things lightly and even beat others to the joke. Or so I thought. As I grew older and learnt more about internet trends, many of which originate from the United States, I educated myself about what appeals to a diverse audience, what was considered comedy, and what was offensive.
After the Asiana Airlines crash at San Francisco International Airport in 2013, I came across Sum Ting Wong and Ho Lee Fuk—phony names that a TV anchor unknowingly announced as members of the flight crew. It was the work of an intern at the National Transportation Safety Board. My mind spiraled into the worst-case scenario, “Holy—what if the intern found out about my name?” In December 2016, a few weeks before I was set to arrive at a Midwestern college town in the U.S. as an exchange student, I told my friends how I genuinely feared that I was going to become a laughing stock. “Just repeat your name back to them. That’ll do it,” a friend advised with a grin.
Then there was the encounter at the bus station, which kept replaying in my head in the week that followed. Was I just being over-sensitive, or were my feelings warranted?
I decided to email the bus company detailing my experience and the meaning of my Chinese name, hoping I would get closure, if you will. Two hours later, the owner replied with an apology. He had reviewed the security footage, which resulted in the staff members involved losing two days’ pay and taking a sensitivity class.
In the weeks that followed, I received individual email apologies from the staff members, including one seeking forgiveness for being an “ignorant redneck.” Another said he was a newly hired Christian who was trying to be “one of the boys.” That was his “sad excuse,” he wrote. He was resorting to negative stereotypes of Americans to get me to accept and empathize with his behavior, which does nothing to guarantee that he wouldn’t behave the same way when a “different-sounding”Chinese name shows up on his passenger list in the future.
Was I happy about the outcome? I wasn’t sure. The owner was sincere, but what if the employees’ families depended on that money? I also began to realize I shouldn’t have expected strangers to understand my complex identity. Why should I expect others to have contextual knowledge about my culture, and my name?
The next time you hear me explaining my Chinese name, that’s me trying to let the world know that my name is more than an unfortunate transliteration. If I don’t take the opportunity to draw interest to the meaning behind it, what the world would take away from an exchange with me might be only what sounds to them like a rather hilarious name. That’s not what I want my legacy to be.