My name is Cohan Chew, which is neither a fully Asian name nor a typical Western name.
As a result, my name has burdened me with unnecessarily long introductions when meeting new people that are awkward at worst and uncomfortable at best.
“What’s your name?”
“Sorry, what was that?”
“How do you spell it?”
“Oh what a nice name.”
This is pretty much the template for every conversation I have with a new person. For the times that I am not asked how to spell my name, the person is guaranteed to forget it, which will make for an awkward conversation later – “It was great meeting you Michael, James and uhh… sorry, what was your name?”
For those who have an ordinary name and don’t experience the above, it may seem like a petty thing to complain about, but imagine having to go through the ritual of this tedious conversation every single time you meet someone or at least having to anticipate having the conversation.
It’s an awkward conversation for all parties – I feel awkward having to spell my name like an infant at primary school, the recipient feels awkward having to ask so many times and anyone who was part of the conversation feels awkward having to wait for the conversation to finish before continuing a normal chat.
Spelling out my unique name is such a burden that at times when the exchange is a brief and solitary occasion, I often give a fake name.
Who has time or patience to spell out their name for a cup of coffee at Starbucks, for instance? Those guys care the least about nailing the accuracy of your name. At times when I’ve tried to play ball and given my real name, my cup of coffee has read “Collin”, “Kohan”, “Kohen”, “Khan”, “Chan” and my favourite “Cun”. No mate, you’re a ‘cun’.
Awkwardness with having a ‘foreign’ name doesn’t stop at introductions either. Registers, waiting lists and reservations are all opportunities for my name to cause me inconvenience. There’s only a certain amount of times a student can correct their teacher for reading out their name wrong during the morning registration. For the entirety of my first year of secondary school, I had to answer to “Chohan”. Things don’t get much better when you grow up either. Nothing kills the mood at the start of a romantic date than hearing “Mr Chohun, your table is ready”.
Even amongst fellow Asians, my name is a subject of confusion. Before I continue, I should probably explain that my name comes from having a father who prides himself on being the world’s biggest James Cagney fan. Whilst my mother was sensible enough to veto ‘Cagney’ as a name for her only son, her one veto couldn’t save her or her son to be from Cohan – a name of a character Cagney played in the American classic Yankee Doodle Dandy. As a result, my name is kind of Jewish, perhaps a variation on the name ‘Cohen’, which incidentally is what most people assume my name actually is.
Anyway, because my name is not an Asian name, Asian people also struggle with it. Cantonese speakers call me Ko-haig and Mandarin speakers call me Ke-han. One Mandarin speaker calls me Kou-Jiao, but that’s a story for another article.
Consequently, throughout my life, I’ve had to put up with accepting and answering to endless variations of my actual name, which kind of defeats the point of having a unique name in the first place.
Before this article starts sounding like a heated rant (apologies if it already does), the issue does manifest itself into more warranted concerns that extend beyond inconveniences. Because my name subjects itself to confusion and awkwardness, I often feel an anxiety in meeting new people. My name has already created an inevitable hurdle before the conversation has even begun. Anticipating the dreaded conversation that involves spelling out my name often deters me from even initiating the conversation in the first place.
Whatsmore, the apprehension of waiting for someone to call your name out incorrectly and choosing the right approach to correct them, or worse still, forgetting your name entirely, can all lead to unnecessary anxiety. Picture, if you will, an important meeting with someone you wish to impress – perhaps a group interview, through which you want to shine. Having to correct the person you’re trying to impress on something as futile as your name already requires a strategy. What happens when they continue to get it wrong? Do you continue to correct them or let it slide? Are they really going to remember your name amongst a group when other people’s names are easier to remember? These are things anyone with a unique name will have to consider and worst of all, it’s completely unnecessary added stress.
So yes, whilst my name maybe unique and special, it is an unnecessary burden that promises a lifetime of inconvenience and anxiety. Of course, I could change my name, but who wants to be that guy?