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Say My Name – or at least attempt to!

Say My Name – or at least attempt to!

by Neethi Srinivasan – University of Michigan

What’s in a name? Contrary to Shakespeare, apparently a lot. As my friends and I watched the Super bowl a few weeks ago, the topic of ethnic names came up. Why do some Asians (Indians, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) change their traditional names to western alternatives? According to some of my friends it is because ethnic names can greatly affect first impressions and relationships.

Though at first I disagreed with this argument, one of my friends shared her personal experience with this topic. Her legal name is Bhargavi, but since coming to college she often introduces herself as Gavi. Though it seems like a trivial change, she argued that when she introduced herself to others as “Gavi” rather than “Bhargavi” she found that people were more at ease with her and there was more of a personal connection that was established. She continued to say that when she introduced herself as “Bhargavi” people would seem detached and uneasy.

Phonetic familiarity, apparently, is key to successfully navigating through American society. That’s arguably why the governor of Louisiana (who is Indian) goes by Bobby Jindal (rather than his legal name Piyush Jindal) or why many Chinese immigrants have Christian as well as traditional names. According to another friend, research has shown that there are certain sounds that create a sense of comfort. For example, names that end in the sound “e” usually have kind and comforting connotations (ex. sweetie, cookie… jelly…clearly, I am hungry!).

After talking with my friends I found it extremely disheartening that many Asian immigrants felt that they had to change their names in order to be accepted into our society. Aren’t we the melting pot of the world, the land of social acceptance? As I reflected on my own personal experiences I realized that there have been times where my name (especially my last name) has caused uncomfortable social situations. One moment that stuck out to me was in high school when one of my teachers was calling roll. He would address other students properly by their last name, but when he came to my last name he just exclaimed “the person with the whole alphabet in their name.” Though everyone thought it was funny, I found it extremely offensive. It seems (both now and then) that there is this inherent apprehension regarding the pronunciation of Asian names.

However, in my own experiences, I have found this reaction is not seen with eastern European names (ex. Russian), which are often times as confusing and complicated as any other Asian name. Why is there this double standard? I personally feel that all names should be treated in an equal and unbiased fashion. I also feel that if you can pronounce Tchaikovsky you sure as hell can say Srinivasan.

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  1. This article really hits home for me! I always went by “Uh-dede” for ease of pronounciation up until college. Then came college and all the fellow Indians who’d correct me. I was like, wait, I know how to say my name, but it’s just too late to go back to the proper Indian pronounciation! However, I decided to go by “Aditi” to my Indian friends and “Uh-dede” by my non-Indian friends. And I continue this today at work and in my personal life. It does get confusing, and I do get berrated by my Indian friends for “changing my name”, but I just feel now it’s too late to go back. And I do like “Uh-dede” too! It definately makes my job easier when talking to clients over the phone.

  2. Neethi, I must gently disagree with your analysis here! My heritage is Eastern European, and I grew up with a great assortment of jokes being told about my ethnicity. When i was old enough to join the working world, A fellow I worked with stopped speaking to me when he found out what my ethnicity was.

    As I got older, I grew more insistent on staking a claim of meaning and relevance to my ethnic background in the US culture. I still continue to do this, except it has been moderated by a story my Dad told me…

    It seems that, where my Dad worked, there was a fellow who changed his “unpronounceable” and uncomfortable Eastern European name to “Wallace.” He also joined the Masons, a group to which many “Anglo” muckety-mucks belonged. However, joining the Masons was strictly taboo for members of Mr. Wallace’s religion.

    Soon, Mr. Wallace was promoted to become a supervisor. He became accepted and a member of the establishment and a muckety-muck himself. Then, my Dad told me, when Mr. Wallace got to be in a high position, he made sure he hired nobody except people of OUR ethnic background.

    After some more conversation, I asked my Dad how he got hired on, and predictably, his answer was that Mr. Wallace hired him.

    My Dad seldom came out and taught me right from wrong in a straightforward manner. He usually would present situations to me, and then let me draw my own conclusions. In this case, I suspect that he, like me, looked askance at people who gave up the ethnic and familial heritage that their name embodied, until he saw how another who had done this had blazed a trail for him.

    I think that Dad’s lesson was that we each have to make our own decision about such things, and that we ought to be careful about being judgmental when others have to make choices, as well.

    However, I would like to remark that such tribal and racial distinctions, in this nation especially, are out of place and are particularly odious to me, perhaps because of the pain I experienced as a youth.

    I’d also like to mention that I enjoy a good Rajnikanth movie as much as the next South Indian does… ;^)

  3. We don’t use the term Eastern Europe to relate to former Eastern Bloc countries. Russia, occupying 40% of all Europe is Eastern Europe (and other former Eastern block countries, including Germany, Austria and Switzerland are Central Europe or the Balkans) but we don’t mention the term (it is a racist, biased and loaded cold war term; also, incorrect when you find out where the centre of Europe actually is).

    Russia is a part of Europe, really, most Russians live in its European part.

    Russian is an European language.

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