The veterinary workplace is not immune to racial insensitivities, but I never stopped to consider the significance of pronouncing my last name.
As a Chinese-American who grew up in a small city in the Midwest, I was used to people mispronouncing my last name. Consistently the only minority in my grade school classes, I remember feeling a complete sense of dread during attendance when a substitute teacher got to me. They’d pause awkwardly for what felt like minutes, invariably stumble through my name, and move onto the next student — while I slumped even deeper into my chair.
I was always shy when I was a kid, and part of me wonders if the racial and cultural homogeneity in which I was raised made me that way. Would I have been as introverted in New York City or California, anonymous and surrounded by a sea of Lius?
After years of mispronunciations, I somewhat accepted that it was just easier for most people to call me Loo. Other Lius (including members of my own family) even introduce themselves that way, and it just seemed to be the way the world worked.
Now? I live in a city where Menchaca Road and Guadalupe Street are routinely mangled by residents into “Man-shack” and “Guad-a-loop” — and no one seems to think much of it. Yet it still didn’t seem worth the effort to be a stickler about my name when there were so many other more upsetting interactions.
Microaggressions (“Do you speak English?” “Oh, are you related to Lucy Liu?” ”CO-NEE-CHEE-WAH!!”) and macroaggressions (“Go back to the rice paddies where you came from!”) were prevalent.
In vet med? There are numerous instances of racial insensitivity routinely encountered, like when technicians tell me they are unable to obtain a history on a pet because of the “language barrier” they are having with a non-native English speaker who ends up being completely articulate when I speak with them. Or when pet owners — always white —name their Asian breed pets, or pets with black fur, a stereotypical ethnic name. Or when staff members act surprised when a minority client elects to pursue gold standard care for their pet. I could go on.
These are not okay.
When I started doing relief work, though, it felt like grade school with the substitute teacher all over again. Every time I went to a new clinic and met a staff member, I would either be called “Dr. Loo” or encounter the same pause-and-stumble when I introduced myself and they tried to repeat my name back.
More than once, I heard, “I’m just going to call you Dr. Loo.” — without asking the actual Dr. Liu whether this was acceptable or not.
And more than once, I agreed that it was acceptable, either tacitly or with a hearty, “Okay!”.
One day, however, the owner of one of my regular relief clinics came up to me on my second or third shift there and exclaimed, “I didn’t know your name was pronounced Liu! You should have told us.”
From that point on, the majority of the employees at that clinic began saying my name correctly. I was stunned. This has never happened to me in any work or school environment before, and it really didn’t take that much effort or conversation.
I realized then that the weird passivity I had towards the pronunciation of my own name was also a passivity towards my own ethnic identity. And that was a bad habit I needed to break.
I took the same path of least resistance when I began learning Spanish on Duolingo — a cool, free app that makes learning fun with graphics and trumpet sounds for correct answers.
I realized right away that I was going to have trouble with the letter R. I have never been able to roll R’s, and if a Spanish word contained a rolled double R, started with the letter R, or had too many R’s close together, I would break into a sweat. Initially, I would try to avoid them by substituting a synonym that was easier for me to say (“¿Está la comida en el refrigerador?” ”Si, está en la nevera.”).
After a couple of weeks of hiding from Spanish R’s, I realized that my approach wasn’t going to cut it if I ever met a Señor Herrera in real life like the character in Duolingo. I finally learned to roll my R’s, but my “camarero” sounds like Scooby-Doo, and if there are more than two R’s in a word, there’s a 90% chance that I’ll panic. I’m sure I’ll never sound like a native Spanish speaker, but I keep trying because training your brain and tongue to process unfamiliar letter combinations is an essential part of learning a new language.
The same principle applies when you’re learning how to say someone’s name. We live in an increasingly diverse America, and while I may be the first Liu you’ve encountered, I definitely won’t be the last.
Those brief moments of mutual awkwardness during introduction — awkward for you because you’re saying an unfamiliar word, awkward for me because I feel bad correcting someone — are meaningful because they help validate my identity as a minority. Even if you end up at Loo, making an effort to get to Liu shows sensitivity, consideration, and a desire to learn in a multicultural society. “How do you say your name, again?” makes me hear Duolingo trumpets because it shows me you care enough to try.
So how do you pronounce my name? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7aLEX70Jf8w
Other tips for helping create a multiculturally sensitive veterinary environment:
- Increase your ability to serve non-English speakers. If a pet parent has an accent or speaks limited English, this doesn’t detract from their ability to provide care for their pet. Use free tools like Google Translate to help you communicate. You can find client handouts in multiple languages through sites like the AVMA and the AAFP. I recently enrolled in “Spanish for Veterinary Professionals”, an online course taught by native Spanish speakers to help me communicate with clients. Practice owners who consider diversity when hiring can ensure that their veterinary staff makeup reflects the population they serve.
- Not sure how to pronounce someone’s name? Just ask! It’s not a big deal. I just had a CSR ask me at a recent shift. I told her how I pronounce my name and then thanked her for asking. The whole interaction took 20 seconds. Giving someone an unsolicited nickname or abbreviation that’s easier for you to pronounce may come across as a microaggression. Practice doesn’t always make perfect, but it shows effort.
- Check out the AVMA tools on DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion), including “Journey for Teams.”
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