No, My Name Isn’t Made Up (My Experience With a Unique Last Name)

For much of my life I’d only gone by “Natalie Wong,” but that’s not technically my real name. My real name is unique, but I never had to worry about it until my junior year of high school, when I started using my full legal last name for college prep testing and college applications. This is when people finally saw my full name: Natalie Knows His Gun-Wong.

My name is Native American, and more specifically from the Crow tribe. Most Native American tribes, including my own, would name people based on what they’re known for, or what they’ve accomplished, or could also be given a name that belonged to someone else for them to live up to. “Knows His Gun” was my great-great-grandfather’s name. When his son (my great-grandfather) was sent to boarding school, he was given an English first name and “Knows His Gun” became his last name. Knows His Gun remained the family’s last name ever since. My dad’s last name is Wong, and when my parents got married, they decided to keep both last names; that’s how my I ended up with Natalie Knows His Gun-Wong.

Once I was listed as “Knows His Gun-Wong” in the school records, I was a bit apprehensive about how others might react to my name. While a few people became inquisitive about it, such as my math teacher, who asked me if I had a lot of guns at home, and my volleyball coach, who wondered if I was allowed to say my name at the airport, the overall response was fairly benign. Surprisingly, my peers at the time were mostly indifferent to my last name change, and only a few were curious enough to ask what the story behind it was. But this was all just a small taste of how people would react to my name.

I found that my name created much more interest—and challenges—once I left the confines of my tiny private school of roughly three hundred people.

During my first week of college, I discovered that my name prompted reactions in class when the professors took roll. Two of my professors were genuinely curious, each of them politely asking me if I could explain my name. I found these to be positive experiences, where I had an opportunity to discuss its origin and my cultural background. Although I’d rather not be put on the spot about my name at all, as rarely anyone is, I’d much rather explain it to someone who asks nicely and out of genuine curiosity than respond to rude questions.

Unfortunately, I’ve had many experiences that were negative. For example, I had one professor read my name, pause for a moment, and then bluntly ask, “Is that real?” The classroom erupted in laughter. Another one asked in a mocking tone, “Do you really go by that?” As the students laughed along at their jests, anticipating my answer, I remember being so nervous in these situations. I could only manage a quiet “yes” in reply after being put on the spot like that.

In both instances, my head became filled with thoughts about what had happened—I wondered, am I being too sensitive about it? Are these comments offensive or am I just unable to take a joke? I felt hurt and embarrassed, and then later on the anger would set in.

Why is it that the professors put such careful thought into saying every other name, often taking the time to ask if they’d pronounced something correctly, but couldn’t afford the same thoughtfulness with mine?

But these classroom experiences are only one aspect of the challenges that I have to face because of my name. In many ways, I’ve learned to be on my guard as I never know how people may react. Just this past year alone, I’ve had two “fun” experiences with TSA at the airport due to my name.

In one instance, I was going through security at the San Diego airport. When it came time for them to check my ID, I was stopped. I watched as the TSA agent stared at my ID for a while with a confused look on his face. He then told me to wait a moment, walked over to his coworkers, and passed my ID around.

After he was done with this, and after I noticed many of them laughing, he came back with one of the other agents by his side. They playfully argued amongst themselves about whether or not the last name belonged to my mom or my dad, right in front of me. They looked at my ID, then to the computer screen before them, and back to my ID again. One of the agents chuckled, shook his head in disbelief, and said, “It’s real.” Neither of them apologized for holding me back. It was humiliating.

Considering the reactions I have received due to my name, one could probably imagine how cautious I was when I began applying for internships. However, it was mostly exciting to get responses to my applications since many of them made no mention of my last name at all. Then came one response that really caught me off guard.

The employer wrote that he couldn’t tell me anything more about the internship position until I answered the questions he had regarding my last name. He asked me if I am affiliated with a gang, if have ever shot someone, and if I am in any way affiliated with Sanctuary Church (which is apparently a group that glorifies guns). He also wrote that if my answers were no to all three of these questions, then why would I have anything related to guns or a play on the word gun in my name?

After I read the email, I sat there dumbfounded by the response. At first I wasn’t going to reply, but I thought that maybe this would be the perfect time to finally speak up for myself.

Heart racing, I typed out a reply explaining that my name is Native American, and made it clear that I found his questions offensive. He then responded quite defensively, claiming that he’s “required” to ask me these things for the safety of himself and his coworkers. Really?

Fifteen minutes later, he sent a follow-up message claiming that he was sorry if I misunderstood his intentions—hardly a sincere apology. At this point, I was perturbed to say the least, and I fired back saying that this was discrimination; there are no legal requirements obligating him to interrogate me this way. The employer then responded by somehow trying to justify his questioning, explaining that he had left Sanctuary Church due to its obsession with guns, and that was why he “had to ask me those questions.” I never sent another response after that. I reported him to the internship website, then reflected on the experience.

I felt glad that I had finally spoken up on my own behalf, but I was also frustrated that I had received a response like that from a potential employer solely because of my name.

I know I could have just ignored the response altogether, but I felt like it was finally an opportunity for me to say something, to stick up for myself after all the ridicule that I’ve received due to my name. Even though responding to him only proved him more ignorant with every successive response—and so much so that it felt like I was talking to a wall—I still felt strangely empowered that I was able to speak my mind at last.

Each experience I’ve had has come with its own lesson. I realized that people are very clearly unaware that Native American names still exist to this day, and aren’t all a thing of the past (not yet anyway). Only one person has actually been able to determine that my name must be Native American, and when he asked if I was half native I was borderline ecstatic that someone finally came to the correct conclusion.

The more notable lesson I’ve learned from this is that when people respond to my last name, there’s a high likelihood that they are going to do so in a disrespectful way. Thus, I’ve taught myself to be completely expectant of whatever could be thrown at me—this way I can at least handle the situation by actually being able to respond instead of freezing up.

I know the easiest way out of all of this is to simply change my name and be done with it. I refuse to change it, though, because I don’t believe in altering a part of my identity so that I can be more comfortable. I remind myself that whatever misfortune I endure, it is nothing compared to the suffering my ancestors faced (and continue to face to this day); it’s for this reason that I refuse to change my birth name. Instead, I choose to handle any and all ridicule about it and possibly use it as an opportunity to educate people who are willing to learn about my Native American background.

I'm a fourth year college student studying towards an English BA, and am planning to become either a writer or an editor. My hobbies include taking care of my pets, doing crossword puzzles, listening to music, watching Studio Ghibli movies, and of course, reading and writing.

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No, My Name Isn’t Made Up (My Experience With a Unique Last Name)

For much of my life I’d only gone by “Natalie Wong,” but that’s not technically my real name. My real name is unique, but I never had to worry about it until my junior year of high school, when I started using my full legal last name for college prep testing and college applications. This is when people finally saw my full name: Natalie Knows His Gun-Wong.

My name is Native American, and more specifically from the Crow tribe. Most Native American tribes, including my own, would name people based on what they’re known for, or what they’ve accomplished, or could also be given a name that belonged to someone else for them to live up to. “Knows His Gun” was my great-great-grandfather’s name. When his son (my great-grandfather) was sent to boarding school, he was given an English first name and “Knows His Gun” became his last name. Knows His Gun remained the family’s last name ever since. My dad’s last name is Wong, and when my parents got married, they decided to keep both last names; that’s how my I ended up with Natalie Knows His Gun-Wong.

Once I was listed as “Knows His Gun-Wong” in the school records, I was a bit apprehensive about how others might react to my name. While a few people became inquisitive about it, such as my math teacher, who asked me if I had a lot of guns at home, and my volleyball coach, who wondered if I was allowed to say my name at the airport, the overall response was fairly benign. Surprisingly, my peers at the time were mostly indifferent to my last name change, and only a few were curious enough to ask what the story behind it was. But this was all just a small taste of how people would react to my name.

I found that my name created much more interest—and challenges—once I left the confines of my tiny private school of roughly three hundred people.

During my first week of college, I discovered that my name prompted reactions in class when the professors took roll. Two of my professors were genuinely curious, each of them politely asking me if I could explain my name. I found these to be positive experiences, where I had an opportunity to discuss its origin and my cultural background. Although I’d rather not be put on the spot about my name at all, as rarely anyone is, I’d much rather explain it to someone who asks nicely and out of genuine curiosity than respond to rude questions.

Unfortunately, I’ve had many experiences that were negative. For example, I had one professor read my name, pause for a moment, and then bluntly ask, “Is that real?” The classroom erupted in laughter. Another one asked in a mocking tone, “Do you really go by that?” As the students laughed along at their jests, anticipating my answer, I remember being so nervous in these situations. I could only manage a quiet “yes” in reply after being put on the spot like that.

In both instances, my head became filled with thoughts about what had happened—I wondered, am I being too sensitive about it? Are these comments offensive or am I just unable to take a joke? I felt hurt and embarrassed, and then later on the anger would set in.

Why is it that the professors put such careful thought into saying every other name, often taking the time to ask if they’d pronounced something correctly, but couldn’t afford the same thoughtfulness with mine?

But these classroom experiences are only one aspect of the challenges that I have to face because of my name. In many ways, I’ve learned to be on my guard as I never know how people may react. Just this past year alone, I’ve had two “fun” experiences with TSA at the airport due to my name.

In one instance, I was going through security at the San Diego airport. When it came time for them to check my ID, I was stopped. I watched as the TSA agent stared at my ID for a while with a confused look on his face. He then told me to wait a moment, walked over to his coworkers, and passed my ID around.

After he was done with this, and after I noticed many of them laughing, he came back with one of the other agents by his side. They playfully argued amongst themselves about whether or not the last name belonged to my mom or my dad, right in front of me. They looked at my ID, then to the computer screen before them, and back to my ID again. One of the agents chuckled, shook his head in disbelief, and said, “It’s real.” Neither of them apologized for holding me back. It was humiliating.

Considering the reactions I have received due to my name, one could probably imagine how cautious I was when I began applying for internships. However, it was mostly exciting to get responses to my applications since many of them made no mention of my last name at all. Then came one response that really caught me off guard.

The employer wrote that he couldn’t tell me anything more about the internship position until I answered the questions he had regarding my last name. He asked me if I am affiliated with a gang, if have ever shot someone, and if I am in any way affiliated with Sanctuary Church (which is apparently a group that glorifies guns). He also wrote that if my answers were no to all three of these questions, then why would I have anything related to guns or a play on the word gun in my name?

After I read the email, I sat there dumbfounded by the response. At first I wasn’t going to reply, but I thought that maybe this would be the perfect time to finally speak up for myself.

Heart racing, I typed out a reply explaining that my name is Native American, and made it clear that I found his questions offensive. He then responded quite defensively, claiming that he’s “required” to ask me these things for the safety of himself and his coworkers. Really?

Fifteen minutes later, he sent a follow-up message claiming that he was sorry if I misunderstood his intentions—hardly a sincere apology. At this point, I was perturbed to say the least, and I fired back saying that this was discrimination; there are no legal requirements obligating him to interrogate me this way. The employer then responded by somehow trying to justify his questioning, explaining that he had left Sanctuary Church due to its obsession with guns, and that was why he “had to ask me those questions.” I never sent another response after that. I reported him to the internship website, then reflected on the experience.

I felt glad that I had finally spoken up on my own behalf, but I was also frustrated that I had received a response like that from a potential employer solely because of my name.

I know I could have just ignored the response altogether, but I felt like it was finally an opportunity for me to say something, to stick up for myself after all the ridicule that I’ve received due to my name. Even though responding to him only proved him more ignorant with every successive response—and so much so that it felt like I was talking to a wall—I still felt strangely empowered that I was able to speak my mind at last.

Each experience I’ve had has come with its own lesson. I realized that people are very clearly unaware that Native American names still exist to this day, and aren’t all a thing of the past (not yet anyway). Only one person has actually been able to determine that my name must be Native American, and when he asked if I was half native I was borderline ecstatic that someone finally came to the correct conclusion.

The more notable lesson I’ve learned from this is that when people respond to my last name, there’s a high likelihood that they are going to do so in a disrespectful way. Thus, I’ve taught myself to be completely expectant of whatever could be thrown at me—this way I can at least handle the situation by actually being able to respond instead of freezing up.

I know the easiest way out of all of this is to simply change my name and be done with it. I refuse to change it, though, because I don’t believe in altering a part of my identity so that I can be more comfortable. I remind myself that whatever misfortune I endure, it is nothing compared to the suffering my ancestors faced (and continue to face to this day); it’s for this reason that I refuse to change my birth name. Instead, I choose to handle any and all ridicule about it and possibly use it as an opportunity to educate people who are willing to learn about my Native American background.

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