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Name Discrimination vs. Assimilation?

Every Ram, Hari and Osama has wished for a different name at some point in life—usually junior high.

Decades ago during a family vacation in Florida, Rena Martin’s father stopped at a souvenir shop to pick out keychains for his two daughters. One said “Jennifer,” which is her sister’s name. But there was no “Rena” keychain, so she got one that said “Dad.”

“I’m not sure what he was thinking,” Martin said. “But I just love that keychain. I still have it, too, hanging on the knob of the lamp near my bed.”

Like many of us first-generation South Asians, Martin gave up on finding a keychain—or any memorabilia with her name on it—years ago. She remembers rolling her eyes in class when the teacher gave each student a personalized bookmark at the end of the term.

“I thought, ‘Great, what is mine going to say?’ ” Martin said. “And when I opened it, I saw ‘Rena: A song.’ I was so touched by that. Even if you can’t find my name on a coffee mug, you can get that stuff printed.”

A person can’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. It’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 doesn’t care for how it can be mangled. Her mother was inspired by the “baby Megan” in a Lamaze class video and contacted relatives to find a similar Indian name for the daughter she was expecting.

“My mom went around to American friends to see if they could pronounce it easily,” Desai said. “But people [I meet] usually get flummoxed by the H—they think the stress goes there and say ‘Meg-GHANA,’ as in the country. Now if I think I’m going to interact with someone for a while, I make sure they pronounce my name right. Otherwise I don’t care.”

Often it’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 “Needy” 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 don’t have a South Asian–sounding name? Dr. Joanna Kuppy’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.

“Sometimes I think it would be nice [to have been given a South Asian name],” Kuppy said. “Because people are always confused. They don’t believe that I’m Indian half the time, and that I’m Catholic the other half. I once had an intern tell me I must be mistaken about my religion…I told him in no uncertain terms that he was an idiot.”

Personally, part of me wishes for an Indian name, too. I’ve often walked into situations where people I hadn’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 “real” name is something like Kiran and I’ve changed it, which is certainly not the case.

Would my life be much different if my name actually were Kiran? It’s hard to say. But changing it is not something I’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 that—but I don’t think it’s because of what I’m called. And for that reason, one thing is certain: If I have kids, they’ll be given Indian names. I’ll just have to be creative when picking out their key chains.

– Karen Dsouza

26 thoughts on “Name Discrimination vs. Assimilation?

  1. Love the article. I will be Monika Burchfield soon and my sister’s Neemita Kuruvilla…talk about family fueds! I can’t tell you how often I’d have to go on sales calls and field “I thought you’d be a blonde…” conversations when clearly I’m South Asian. My name doesn’t appear on key chains either.

  2. what a fantastic article! i always thought I was the only one who couldn’t find keychains with her name on it

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