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All the Ways Americans Have Mispronounced My Name

It's Youmna. YOUMNA!
All the Ways Americans Have Mispronounced My Name
Photograph by Jeff Elkins

I’ve lived with my name for 20 years, but over the course of three months in the United States, I’ve gotten Una, Youma, Youmn, Muna, and a dozen more.

People ask, “Is it . . . Youna?”

“No,” I laugh, trying to hide my discomfort. “It’s Youmna—Y-o-u-m-n-a.”

Some are apologetic even before saying it: “I’m sorry, I’m totally going to get this wrong, but . . . .”

I think of my father, the person responsible for the name, asleep in his warm bed in Qatar. Dammit, Dad—why couldn’t you have called me Lily or Johana? My older sister, Eman, has it easier. Though her name isn’t common in the US either, it has proved easier for American tongues.

I would love to say I was okay with all of this from the moment I stepped off the plane from Doha for a magazine internship in the US, but I wasn’t.

I had actually put together a list of “things I must prepare for in America” before coming here. It included unreasonable items such as “dying from coffee overdose” and “walking everywhere,” but also reasonable things like “hunting down halal food” and “walking everywhere.” My Google search history was evidence of my cluelessness: “How much is a penny worth?” “Why is the tap water so cloudy?” “Where is Foggy Bottom?” (I might also have asked: “Who is responsible for naming things here?”)

I almost grimace thinking back to the first time I went to Shake Shack. It started off great—a nice woman gestured at me to approach the counter. I swayed a little as I stepped forward, trying to look at the menu and move ahead at the same time.

“May I have a, uh . . . ?” I hesitated before finally deciding on a ShackBurger with cheese fries.

“Can I have your name, sweetie?”

“Uh . . . .” My mind went blank.

Panic! WHAT? What is my name? What is your name, Youmna?

I thought for a moment. “Youmna,” I finally said. Then without being asked, I instinctively began to spell it out.

“Okay, thank you. Step aside—your order will be ready in a few.”

I stood in shock, realizing she hadn’t asked me to “pardon” or “excuse” her for not getting it the first time.

Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe America will finally start getting my name right. I pictured myself accepting an award in a dress made out of the American flag. White doves fluttered over me as I began my acceptance speech: “I’d like to thank my mother and father for giving me this name. To all the people who don’t find their names engraved on key chains and fake license plates in souvenir shops—this is for you.” President Obama walked onstage and handed me my prize: a miniature bald-eagle statue with my name on it.

The image drifted away as I approached to pick up my food. I looked at the receipt. It said . . . Younna.

Later that night, I addressed the nation on a Facebook post: “Okay, America. Sit down. Let’s talk this out.” I said that although my name isn’t popular—I’m no Kelly or Stephanie—if a country that allows a guy whose name sounds like Alex to spell it Aleks (I’ve seen this!), it should be able to deal with Youmna.

Well, my friends thought it was funny.

I realize I am every Starbucks barista’s worst nightmare, but I take courage and inspiration from my favorite poet, Warsan Shire, who wrote: “Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth.”

That’s a great thing for an aspiring journalist, right?

Editorial fellow Youmna Al-Gailey can be reached at youmnaalgailey2016@u.northwestern.edu.

This article appears in the June 2015 issue of Washingtonian.

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