Every Ram, Hari and Osama has wished for a different name at some point in lifeâ€”usually junior high.
Decades ago during a family vacation in Florida, Rena Martinâ€™s father stopped at a souvenir shop to pick out keychains for his two daughters. One said â€œJennifer,â€ which is her sisterâ€™s name. But there was no â€œRenaâ€ keychain, so she got one that said â€œDad.â€
â€œIâ€™m not sure what he was thinking,â€ Martin said. â€œBut I just love that keychain. I still have it, too, hanging on the knob of the lamp near my bed.â€
Like many of us first-generation South Asians, Martin gave up on finding a keychainâ€”or any memorabilia with her name on itâ€”years ago. She remembers rolling her eyes in class when the teacher gave each student a personalized bookmark at the end of the term.
â€œI thought, â€˜Great, what is mine going to say?â€™ â€ Martin said. â€œAnd when I opened it, I saw â€˜Rena: A song.â€™ I was so touched by that. Even if you canâ€™t find my name on a coffee mug, you can get that stuff printed.â€
A person canâ€™t control what goes on her own birth certificate (at the outset, anyway), but a name has the power to affect pivotal situations like the first day of school, a blind date or a job interview (ethnic name resume discrimination) even before you get the chance to introduce yourself in person. And with a name comes a sense of identity and belonging. Itâ€™s no wonder that they can also be a source of frustration. Especially when it comes to pronunciation of ethnic names.
Meghana Desai has always loved her name, but doesnâ€™t care for how it can be mangled. Her mother was inspired by the â€œbaby Meganâ€ in a Lamaze class video and contacted relatives to find a similar Indian name for the daughter she was expecting.
â€œMy mom went around to American friends to see if they could pronounce it easily,â€ Desai said. â€œBut people [I meet] usually get flummoxed by the Hâ€”they think the stress goes there and say â€˜Meg-GHANA,â€™ as in the country. Now if I think Iâ€™m going to interact with someone for a while, I make sure they pronounce my name right. Otherwise I donâ€™t care.â€
Often itâ€™s simply easier to let a mispronunciation stick. I knew a Saravanan whose kindergarten teacher had trouble with his name so she shortened it to Saravan, the version he used until the end of college. And a Nidhi whose coworkers pronounced her name â€œNeedyâ€ until a new colleague joined the team and confused them by pronouncing it correctly.
Some South Asians opt for a modified moniker or a new name entirely. Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, goes by a nickname famously inspired by a character on The Brady Bunch though his given name is Piyush. And Kalpen Modi is better known as Kal Penn, a stage name he adopted to attract a wider range of acting roles. Even a girl in my class asked to be called Angelica instead of Purvi during our middle-school years.
How about those of us who donâ€™t have a South Asianâ€“sounding name? Dr. Joanna Kuppyâ€™s first name is an amalgam honoring her grandfather, grandmother and great-grandmother, and holds special meaning to her. And while she may find any number of personalized knick-knacks emblazoned with her name, it still causes a fair amount of confusion.
â€œSometimes I think it would be nice [to have been given a South Asian name],â€ Kuppy said. â€œBecause people are always confused. They donâ€™t believe that Iâ€™m Indian half the time, and that Iâ€™m Catholic the other half. I once had an intern tell me I must be mistaken about my religionâ€¦I told him in no uncertain terms that he was an idiot.â€
Personally, part of me wishes for an Indian name, too. Iâ€™ve often walked into situations where people I hadnâ€™t met in person assumed I was Caucasian based on my name and Midwestern accent. On the other hand, South Asians have wondered with disdain if my â€œrealâ€ name is something like Kiran and Iâ€™ve changed it, which is certainly not the case.
Would my life be much different if my name actually were Kiran? Itâ€™s hard to say. But changing it is not something Iâ€™d ever consider. My parents chose that name in the hopes that it would bring me luck, love and success, and I have all of thatâ€”but I donâ€™t think itâ€™s because of what Iâ€™m called. And for that reason, one thing is certain: If I have kids, theyâ€™ll be given Indian names. Iâ€™ll just have to be creative when picking out their key chains.
– Karen Dsouza