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One of the material effects of the “race card” is the reluctance and inability to intelligently parse the English letters of non-western names. Take mine for example.  At a dress shop I was asked to confirm my name so the sales assistant could look up my buying history. J-A-Y-A she spelled out loud, then looked at me and said “Jeva?”

The problem with the mispronunciation and distortion of names is that it immediately establishes the “alien” category as a justifiable classification. With the so-called racist prank involving the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and the San Francisco television station, KTVU, the blame fell squarely on a hapless intern for having confirmed the validity of the names, “Sum Ting Wong,” “Wi Tu Lo,” “Ho Lee Fuk” and “Bang Ding Ow.”

On analysis, there is a deeper more outrageous prevailing trend. It is possible that the intern most likely confirmed the names because he heard them repeated; or he and likely others were clueless enough to believe the names were no joke; or it was a clumsy prank. Which then leads to the conclusion that it’s open season on Asian names within corporate offices.

Claire Jean Kim, an associate professor of political science and Asian American Studies at the University of California, Irvine is quoted in an article on Huffington Post as saying that racial jokes on names “reflect a deeper view of Asian Americans as culturally different and inferior,” and that the jokes distorting the pilots’ names after a fatal air crash “are not benign.”

Several anonymous online posts were critical of the lack of humor in the response to the KTVU news report. “Ah yes, the “r” word: racism. And the “o” word: offensive. Get over it. A mildly clever person pulled a reasonably funny (if insensitive—to the victims of the crash) prank,” stated one. The question to ask is why should anyone “get over it?” Names, after all, label us and put identifiers on our race, gender, heritage and culture.

A few days ago, the phone rang. I picked it up even though I didn’t recognize the number. “Hello,” I said. “Mrs. Padabaam?” a voice asked. I put the receiver down without responding.

We set the bar way too low if we allow ourselves to concede that our multi-syllabic names confound the western reader. If you can say disintegration and pronunciation, surely you can say Padmanabhan?

Jaya Padmanabhan

Jaya Padmanabhan is editor emeritus, contributing writer, and board member of India Currents. She is a veteran journalist, essayist, and fiction writer with over 250 published articles and short stories....