YNPN Chicago Board of Directors Speak!
When I was five, my mother enrolled me in Kindergarten. My Pocahontas lunch box came to school filled with sticky rice, homemade beef jerky, and sometimes a tomato-based and fish-smelling dipping sauce. None of this was weird to me.
I stepped through those large, metal doors with my chin slightly up and my nerves getting the better of me. I was a painfully shy child. I was trained from a very young age to be quite obedient. The other kids around me were loud, giggly, and full of energy. It made me uncomfortable.
When the teacher began the attendance roll-call, it became the moment – though I didn’t know at the time – that would set a precedent for the majority of my adolescent life. The attendance was going smoothly, right up to this point. Did I even know my name was coming up? Or that it would create such an imbalance in the rhythm that was the-attendance-calling up to now? Of course not.
“Hmm, this one’s a bit tricky; listen closely!” Had I had known, I would have shot my hand straight up and yelled “Present!” before she could even attempt it.
“SOWKA-PRY-DEH FET-TE-MIZTY?” That was the first time I had ever heard someone not in my family pronounce my real name. It was a horrible experience for a five year old.
I raised my hand.
“Great! Did I pronounce that right?” I shook my head no and she asked me to say it for her.
“SOOK-PREE-DUH PET-MISSY,” I sheepishly whispered.
“Is there something else you go by?” I thought for a moment and nodded my head.
“Victoria,” I looked down at my table. “It’s my middle name.”
That was 1993. From that moment on, Victoria became my persona. Throughout my high school and even into my college years, Victoria was helping me become confident and successful. My teachers adored her, praised her, and even recommended her for top-tier schools around the country. Soukprida was a shadow of my childhood and rarely did I ever let her resurface.
But this began to bother me for the last two years of college. I started questioning why it was such an outlandish idea, the idea of wanting people to pronounce my birth name correctly. Why should I supply them with an alternative?
That was 2008. During the same year, I questioned my identity and my name again, but in a different and rather subtle way. I was a part of NPR’s Next Generation Radio project. My piece was called “Accents and Identity: A Personal Journey.” (You can only imagine what that was about.)
When I returned from that “personal journey,” I had a long talk with one of my professors who told me to embrace my uncommon name. “Use your minority status for all its worth.” Was he joking? “You shouldn’t have to go by your middle name just because a few people are too lazy to work on pronouncing your first name right. It’s your name. It makes you unique. It makes you, you.”
When I moved to Chicago (in 2010), I decided to finally accept my birthright and it’s been a refreshing ride ever since. The Chicago’s diverse nonprofit sector has received it with open arms and I continue to be thankful and ferocious in the ways I strive to define myself (name and all) within it.
As a young Laotian woman trying to make it in the nonprofit world, I see where my real name is a benefit. I see all my differences now and instead of being embarrassed by them, I am starting to embrace them more fully. After all, what’s in a name, but the person behind it who defines it and gives it meaning?
Soukprida Phetmisy, Student Engagement Manager, Center for Community Arts Partnerships, graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2010, where she received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Writing and Arts Administration. She has worked extensively in radio journalism, new media and youth development and has since been seeking avenues to merge these interests into one.Since moving to Chicago in 2010, she has been an active member in the nonprofit and arts communities, and hopes to continue working in these sectors expansively.