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Wouldn’t life be a lot easier for our children if we could name them Jane or John or Sean, like the Chinese do? But no, we Indians cannot let go of Indian names. If anything, we look for rare, more exotic names. We want meaningful Sanskrit names, which are uncommon, and hope Americans can say it. I know I never considered anything but Indian names for my children. Even though, if I am honest, it’s possible that I may not return to India. Yes, there are various stages of denial but that’s another issue.
We have all had, at some time or the other, to explain how our name is pronounced. Actually there are very few Indian names that Americans say perfectly the first time. I know of a friend who has an unusually long name even by Indian standards and he has had some funny experiences because of it. When he first came to the U.S. his Social Security Number did not arrive for months. Worried, he called the Social Security office and they said he was responsible for crashing their system. Shocked, he asked how that could be, and they informed him that his name was so long that they could not enter it in the system and the program had to be changed before he could get his Social Security number! He was so tired of people getting his name wrong that when it was time for him to marry he insisted that he would only marry a girl with a short name. He was specific actually—no longer than 5 letters. His mother was horrified and said that rejecting a girl because she had a long name was unheard of, and how could they explain that to the girl’s family? But our friend was adamant and who could blame him?
The first thing that strikes us in the American way of saying our names is originality! Sometimes we cannot even recognize ourselves. One day when I was at my sister’s place, I answered the phone. “Hello, can I speak with Mr. or Mrs. Ear?” a voice asked. “Sorry you have the wrong number,” I said without hesitation. Then, on an afterthought I asked, “Could you repeat the name please?” She spelled, “I-Y-E-R, Ear.” I laughed. Who would have thought of that? My sister said, “You think that’s funny. We have also been called Ire and even Liar!”
The thing is, having a small name does not solve the problem. I’ve heard of Arya become Area, Gokul become Go-Cool, Udit become YOU-dit, Archana become Ar-Can-a, Madhu become Mad-who and the list is endless. Many times it does not make a difference, but when people constantly get your name wrong it gets irritating. Sometimes it’s not funny at all. I heard of a Dipshita whose name had to be changed because Americans called her Deep-shit-a! And if you want to name your child Anushka you had better come up with a different spelling if you don’t want name split after the first four letters! Really, naming is a pretty serious matter—think of a lifetime of having to live with a name that invites ridicule. As it is, children have to face bullying and teasing in schools that we will never fully know about.
Is it that we resist change or is it the mindset of the immigrant to hold on to their culture? It is true, that we don’t want to lose our identity or our culture. And yes, no matter how Americanized we become we will always stand out as different. Still, it would be practical if we gave our children American names. Eventually, no matter what we name them, they will be called by some American nickname. Perhaps, the real reason is that we cannot imagine our children as Julia or James. It will seem more than a little strange. I cannot see myself shouting at a Julia, at the top of my voice in Tamil!
Come to think of it, maybe we don’t have to do anything. The situation may resolve itself. In 10 or 15 years there will be enough Indians in schools and colleges here for Americans to have ample practice saying our names and pronouncing Indian names will be just as easy and simple as any other name! Imagine that! Until then, however, I’ll have to keep explaining that Priya is pronounced PRE-ya not PRY-ya!