Difficult Ethnic Names

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

Chinye Ijeli

Art by Anshika Bajpai


My name is Chinye. CHEEN-yeh. In a particular dialect of a Nigerian language called Igbo, it means, “God gave to me.” In naming me this, my parents were essentially saying, “God gave this child to us.”

Most “difficult,” “ethnic” names—names that weren’t disseminated by Western European colonizers—are common somewhere. My name is most readily pronounced and comprehended in the Delta state of southern Nigeria, a place I have only visited once, for one day.

I am not sure I would have been named Chinye if I was born in Nigeria. My parents, who were born there, have unassuming English first names. Charles and Bernadette. My cousins in Nigeria have similarly unassuming English names—Samuel, Esther, Juliet, etc. Only the members of my family that were born in the US have unmistakably Igbo first names: Chinye, Ifeoma, Nkem, Nweike, and so on. Names with doubled-up consonants and vowels. Names that Microsoft Word underlines in red.

Maybe my parents gave me my name to remind me of my heritage. Maybe they regretted it a little. Soon after I started preschool, my mother invented a nickname that was more palatable to my Southern white teachers: “Chinny.” She wrote it on the small plastic baggies that contained my snacks. I continued to introduce myself as “Chinny” until I graduated from college.

I ditched the nickname because it had stopped serving its purpose. The name was supposed to be easy to pronounce and easy to remember, but people always found a way to warp it. Chenny, Cheeny, Chin-yee. Ginny, Jenny, Cheyenne. I would rather have them mispronounce my actual name.

Mispronunciations of my name remind me, daily, that I am an outsider. They remind me that I am both unexpected and easily forgotten.

In middle and high school, the blows were softened by the fact that I was surrounded by children of immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. We were constantly mispronouncing each other’s names and making other cultural gaffes, and we were constantly laughing about it. The University of Chicago was totally different. Instead of the vibrant cultural exchange I was used to, I was met with an environment where students of color were scrutinized and questioned in a way that white students were not. Instead of laughing when I struggled with reading the name “Michaela,” my white friends looked surprised and offended.

Because I don’t have a mob of Nigerians to look surprised and offended for me, I am far more gracious when people mispronounce my name. I have tried writing phonetic pronunciations on white boards, plastering them on social media pages, and dropping them in group chats. I have tried developing childish mnemonics and rhymes. I have tried repeating my name out loud, slowly and often, with an encouraging smile. The effort is exhausting. The mispronunciations are so frequent and so pervasive that I would not be able to carry on conversations if I corrected every error. I secretly fear that, if I correct people too often, they will stop calling for me altogether. As an alternative, I have adopted the terrible habit of answering to a variety of two-syllable names.

The famous actress Uzoamaka Aduba, known for her role in the TV show Orange is the New Black, is a special inspiration to me for many reasons. Like me, she is simultaneously Igbo Nigerian and American. Also like me, she has kinky, gravity-defying hair and a show-stopping name. We even share the same birthday. On the day I was born, she was somewhere in suburban Massachusetts, most likely cringing at mispronunciations of her name as she celebrated turning 16. According to a talk she gave at an event held by Glamour magazine, her mother comforted her by reminding her that everyone learned to pronounce Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo eventually.

I aspire to become so widely-known and well-respected in my field that people are forced to learn my name. Of course, the fact that I will have to do so much to earn such a small gesture is unjust. Thank goodness I’m Nigerian; all Nigerians believe they are destined to be great.