“Have you ever considered changing you surname so, it’s easier to do your job?” asked a public relations person whilst pitching a story to me. “It’s just you must get sick of spelling it out and, I mean where do you even begin on how to pronounce it?” For the record, I don’t get sick of spelling my name instead, it’s the jokes and running commentary I get sick of.
My name is Tali Aualiitia... and, don’t worry, if I saw my name written down I wouldn’t know how to pronounce it either. But, this is not about spelling or pronunciation – it’s about respect. Respect for a name that is “different”.
My story with my name began before I was even born. In fact, it started when my parents got married. It’s a classic boy meets girl story. My mum, a second-generation Italian Australian with the surname Boccuccia (bo-coo-chee-ah), married my father, a first-generation Samoan Australian with the surname Ugapo (ungh-a-por). Like Disney’s Moana my dad comes from a long line of Chiefs so my mum got to choose our surname from his inherited titles. My mum, knowing what it was like to grow up with a “different” name, choose Aualiitia (ol-let-tee-ah) because she reasoned they can’t make fun of a name they can’t pronounce.
I think I realised my name was “different” when I was about 7-years-old and wanted to be a celebrity. You might assume I was chasing celebrity for fame or fortune but, instead I wanted my name to be the “Famous Person” requiring solving on Wheel of Fortune. In true Polynesian fashion my name has more vowels than consonants which meant if the contestants didn’t buy a vowel the final board would like this this:
I don’t know if 7-year-old me was trying to create game show puzzle drama or was trying to calculate a revengeful plan in defence of her name but, either way as the years went on I was constantly reminded how “different” my name was.
Don’t even get me started on roll call during school days with a substitute teacher but, over the years whenever I said my name I learnt to expect laughing and then commentary that sounded like this:
“I bet you can’t wait to get married so you can change your name”
“It’s definitely the weirdest name I’ve ever seen”
“I’m just going to call you “Tali Smith” instead, that’s much easier”
“Do you even like your name?”
“Do you think your brothers will keep their surname when they get older?”
“Isn’t it funny how everyone just gives up when trying to pronounce your surname?”
“Maybe you should just be like Madonna and Cher and go by Tali instead”
I had become so accustomed to reactionary laughing to my name that during my University graduation ceremony I stood in my cap and gown in front of a crowded auditorium internally begging the announcer not to add anything that highlighted how “different” my name was when he called it out. I was still mumbling “please don’t make fun of my name” on repeat when his swift pronunciation occurred. That was it, he said my name and I walked across the stage. It was such a relief. When I met up with my family after the ceremony the first thing we commented on the pronunciation of my name. Not because he got it right because he didn’t but, because he didn’t make a big deal of it. In that moment, I felt like ol’ run of the mill, Joan Citizen. The only other time I can remember my family being impressed at the pronunciation of our surname was when we were in Auckland airport but, I guess my name wasn’t so “different” there.
Let the record show, I have never been offended at someone who tried earnestly to pronounce my name. In fact, just last week my colleague greeted me one morning with “Good morning Miss Ol-lee… Ol-til… Ol-till-ia. damn it, I was practising it in the car on the way here. How do you pronounce it again? I’m going to get it right”. And for the first time since Waleed Aly’s Gold Logie speech where he dedicated his win to those with unpronounceable names I felt that change was happening.
For the longest time when people would try to pronounce my name I would say “oh, whatever you call me is fine, I will respond anyway” in the hope of moving the conversation away from the difficulty of my name. However, I was doing my name a disservice. My name represents my culture and my history, my present and my future. Yes, it is different but, that isn’t a bad thing. In a multicultural society, we are going to come across names that are not familiar to us but, instead of passing judgement take it as an opportunity to be welcoming and inclusive.
My name is not a joke, it’s my identity.