By Judy Tan
It’s a common mistake. Sometimes you misremember someone’s name. Sometimes you call your second child by your first child’s name. A colleague whose first and last names are both common first names may be called by their surname. Or maybe sometimes you just like the name Judy so much that you start calling everyone Judy. That’s exactly what the chair of a committee I once sat on, whose wife’s name is Judy, did.
Wait. Except, the chair didn’t call EVERYONE Judy. Like, not the men. Nor just any woman. They only called one of the women, Judy (her name was Waverly). And while they always remembered my name, they would refer to Waverly, a highly accomplished medical doctor with whom they’d worked for many years, by the wrong name. With the social aptitude and grace that come only with years of practice, “Judy” would play it off to save face.
Ask Waverly how often, in her career, she’d been called by the wrong name, and she might chuckle, roll her eyes, and say, “More than I care to recall.” Ask her how often her ideas or what she says get claimed by the “louder” voices of men with the same ideas, saying the same things.
Why does this happen?
My name is Judy Tan. On the car ride to my very first day of first grade in America, as my dad and his friend contemplated my would-be, anglicized name that I was to be known as for the rest of my American life. Thank goodness they ended with Judy and not Victoria, the contender, because my grad school moniker, “Judy-Mutha-f*ckin-TAN!” would not have had the same ring.
Throughout the years, I felt smug relief that I could fit in with my classmates, at parties, over the phone with the cable company, with my Whi-ti-fied name, unlike the other immigrants with hard-to-pronounce phonetic spellings of words never meant to be skeletonized. In perfect American primetime-TV diction, I would recite, “Judy with a Y, T-A-N like the color tan.” I was relieved that I could give them a name that they could read, hear, pronounce, and attribute to me, because I paid a high price to do so: I had to relinquish my rich namesake.
There is not an exact English translation for my name (有容). It is part of a Chinese proverb, which invokes an endless capacity for acceptance, forgiveness, and patience as vast as space and as deep as the oceans. It’s almost too substantial, powerful, and artful, for English to carry.
Judy, on the other hand, can mean little woman in Hebrew.
But with Judy, I don’t cringe when I read or hear the meaningless phonetic spelling of 有容, which I’d later changed to my legal middle name. And I try to embody my namesake—the magnanimity, the forgiveness, every time I nevertheless get called something other than Judy. (I don’t succeed.)
From time to time, a senior faculty at work would forget my name, or call me by something other than Judy. I’ve been called Amy Tan, three separate times, by two different senior faculty. What’s the big deal with being called Amy Tan? Amy Tan is emblematic of an Asian American racialized consciousness in White American popular culture during a specific time in the 1990s, when her books were New York Times best sellers. In the 1960s, it was Suzie Wong. Before then, women were lovingly called China doll, or dragon lady, or some other racially sexualized moniker.
Once, my boss forgot my name in a group meeting when they were trying to thank me for my contributions. I know this, because they had been rattling off the names of other contributors when they’d stopped dead in their tracks, stared at me with a helpless, frozen, a deer-in-headlights expression that tells me that, not only couldn’t they conjure my name, but that they are mortified at the faux pas. Invariably, I would have to come to their (or my own?) rescue.
“Judy,” I would offer, careful to control the tiny, micrometer twitches on my face as I try to mask my own mortification. My mind would race a mile a second: “Do they not like me?” “Is my work just not important?” “Do I belong here?”
Another time, I was introduced as Amy Tan before a talk. As the introducer muttered something about reading her book recently, I managed a light joke (but I hated myself for saying the joke and participating in my own invisibility) and then I mustered all the precious courage and reserve—the full-cup that I fill before a presentation or talk—to not sink through the floor and succumb to those negative messages on repeat.
By the time I took the mic, my cup was low, my confidence shot, and I’d forgotten most of my talk, let alone the witticisms I’d planned throughout, as I was embarrassed by what others may have witnessed. Of course, it was not my fault, but as the introducer left, I was nevertheless left high and dry to manage the mortifying encounter that was supposed to have been a warm, welcoming introduction to me and my invited work. It didn’t help that, before the introducer introduced me as Amy Tan, they’d introduced others on the same panel by adding “our very own…” in front of their correct names.
How could a boss who had known me for years, while rattling off a list of other people’s names, forget mine? Why would my name, on an important email announcement, be misspelled? Each instance, in their singularity, could be easily explained away as an unfortunate, benign gaffe, an unintentional albeit uncomfortable occurrence. Well-meaning bystanders, filled with cognitive dissonance, would try to comfort by excusing it (e.g., “they were in a rush…”), reframing it (e.g., “claim your power”), dismissing it (“at least they fixed it”), or detracting from it (e.g., “it could be worse”). Other, unkind responses include dismissing it completely, making jokes, and even laughing.
Sometimes I wonder if the Asian-American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.
— Steven Yeun in The Many Lives of Steven Yeun, New York Times
Dr. Judy Tan is a social psychologist who seeks to understand individual behavior in the context of the situation. She lives in the Bay Area.