Actually, it's taotao

Taotao Li, Sidwell '18

Taotao Li explains how misspellings and mispronunciations of her name have deeply impacted her life, shedding light on a common experience among many first-generation Americans.

AS A CHILD, DID YOU EVER go into a souvenir store or little shop to search for those cute little keychains with your name on them? I certainly did, but as one you imagine, I was not too successful at finding one with the name “Taotao.” However, the vast majority of my friends — with names like Sophia, Megan, and Abby — could probably have all the keychains they wanted. Although this is a relatively trivial dilemma, and I clearly survived my childhood despite never finding a keychain, the experience is reflective of what it is like to be from outside the dominant culture. In that sense, the keychain is just one example of the regular reminders of my outsider status and the unwillingness of others to be more inclusive. Dealing with those reminders on a daily basis is anything but trivial.

My full name is Katherine Yuetao Li. “Taotao” comes from my Chinese name, 李乐涛 or Li Yuetao. My Chinese name is also my middle name and means “the ocean of music.” Since Mandarin is my first language, my parents have always called me “Taotao,” and I was already accustomed to hearing it when I started school and began learning English. However, if I had a dollar for every time someone mispronounced or misspelled my name, I could buy as many overpriced Starbucks drinks as I wanted.

I have encountered mispronunciations and misspellings of “Taotao” for as long as I can remember, but they bothered me the most between kindergarten and third grade. My peers were predominantly white, with names like Olivia, Hannah, Victor, and Dylan. Adults’ inability to say my name (which five-year-old me could not understand since they could pronounce everyone else’s) made me feel foreign and uncomfortable in my own skin. What was more upsetting was the fact that I felt it was somehow my fault that no one could say something as basic as my name. Eventually, all I wanted was a “normal” name — one that everyone could recognize.

AFTER THIRD GRADE, MY family and I moved to South Africa. I attended an international school where over ninety countries were represented by the student body. As you can probably imagine, such a diverse community had lots of different kids with lots of different names, and being part of this community led me to a more profound appreciation for “Taotao.” Yes, there were still some students with names like Olivia, Hannah, Victor, and Derek, but there were also names like Shreya, Selemo, Jitze, and Jan. For many of us, our names served as direct ties to important cultures in our lives. My accent and fluency when speaking English led everyone to infer that I was American. Choosing to go by “Taotao” as opposed to “Katherine” illustrated how Chinese culture was (and still is) a substantial


influence in my life. I speak Mandarin at home, celebrate Chinese holidays, visit my family in China for at least one month every summer, and keep in touch with them frequently throughout the school year. This culture that I value deeply is an integral part of my identity, and it has undeniably shaped me as a person. It is also perfectly captured in a very simple form: my name.

BY NO MEANS DID EVERYONE in South Africa know how to pronounce my name. But I feel that simply given the sheer number of cultures that were represented in our student body, there was an indelible sense of cultural awareness, causing people to at least attempt to say “Taotao.” Since returning to the United States, however, I have had several experiences when a teacher will see “Taotao” on the attendance sheet, not know how to pronounce it, and simply default to saying “Katherine” instead. While this may seem small, I cannot help but feel disrespected because beyond a disregard for my name, which is a basic piece of my identity, it demonstrates a disregard for how “Taotao” represents a culture that I cherish and that has a profound impact on my life. While this is not some unforgivable injustice, and I can easily correct people, I also feel annoyed and a little disappointed to have to correct every new person I meet about something that basic.

I certainly do not expect everyone to immediately be able to say my name right or somehow recognize the true significance my name holds. But I implore everyone to be cognizant of the fact that many people’s names possess much more meaning and significance than it would seem readily apparent. At the very least, I think we should try to pronounce everyone’s names as a gesture of inclusivity and respect. I hope that we can increase our awareness regarding ethnic names and the value they can carry in someone’s life because it is not only about the name, but also about who gets to be and feel included in this country. Who knows — maybe someday I will even be able to find a keychain with my name on it.