What’s in a name?

My parents had many fights, but one of their first with regard to me, was over my name.  My mom wanted a Western name.  This was based on a childhood decision she had made. My father wanted a unique South Asian name, with a specific meaning.  In the end, although legally my father won the fight, my mom and her side of the family called me by the Western name she liked and my dad and his side of the family called me by my South Asian name.

I was alright with both.  It allowed me to know what identity to adopt when with which side of the family, but that’s for another blog.

With my West Indian family, there was a rationale behind the Western name.  All of my West Indian aunts and uncles were given traditional South Asian names.  They were all second generation South Asian, and came from a very traditional family, that upheld all of the customs from their native India.  However, when my mom was growing up, Trinidad was a British Colony.  She went to a British school and apparently, the British teachers had a hard time with the South Asian names and encouraged the kids to take on Western names.  And many of my aunts and uncles did that.   Education and learning were important and therefore, the kids wanted to please their teachers.

The family story is that my grandfather went to the school to get one of the kids and when he asked for his child, with their South Asian name, he was told that they did not have a child with that name at the school.  After going through 4 of the children (my mom came from a family of 10), he finally got to my Aunt, who retained her name, notwithstanding the encouragement to change her name from her teachers.  It was at this point that my grandfather learned of his kids’ new Western names.

As you can imagine, he was not happy about this change, but adopted the philosophy that the kids could have their Western names at school but at home, they would go by their South Asian names.  He died shortly after that, and eventually, most of the kids came to be known by their Western names.  And so when it was time to immigrate, they moved to Canada with their Western names.  For my mom, it meant fitting in and not constantly being picked on or dealing with the incorrect mispronunciation of her name at school everyday.  And I think that this was the legacy she wanted to avoid for me.  I actually really like the name my mom chose for me – it is pretty and fun and when said with the West Indian cadence, had a sweetness to it.

But dad had other ideas.

For him, his children had to have strong and meaningful South Asian names, reflective of his Bengali roots.  My dad was actually very good at choosing names and was asked by friends to assist in the naming of their children.  And to his credit, I really love the name he chose for me.  Its meaning is good goddess and it was a name I tried to live up to and make proud.

But the name was destroyed by others from the time I started daycare.  For some reason, my South Asian name posed the same trouble that my mom had encountered; they could not pronounce it.  And so, a Western pronounciation of my name came about and that became the accepted version amongst my friends and teachers.  I was not a fan, but I made it work.  However, whenever anyone tried to shorten it, I quickly corrected them and said no………

Until I got to Law School.  Law School for me was a totally new experience.  I was going away to school and the university was known for being predominantly white and posher than my undergraduate university, where I had stayed in the City to attend.  And so, being eager to fit in, I allowed the shortened version of my name – Su.  New persona for my new environment.

I hated it, but for some reason, when it got started, I did not stop it and I allowed it to perpetuate.  It was awful.  But at the same time, as a result of this initial attempt to fit into this new environment, this was also a time when I started re-connecting with my culture.  Always a push – pull.  My close friends at Law School were South Asian (we were few in numbers), and we would watch South Asian movies, attend South Asian restaurants, go to South Asian cultural shows…..the first time I had done any of this without my family.  And I think that this reinforced to me that I was not Su, and never would be.  And so I am glad that I went through this experience because when I articled and practiced law, I was clear in ensuring that people knew my full name and although not always properly pronounced, I was not going to make it easier because this was who I was……….

Except when I am with my West Indian family, and then I am always known by my “Western name”…..and also when I am Starbucks because even with my West Indian name, they mess it up!

And so when it came time to choose names for our kids, my husband and I were on the same page.  We wanted strong South Asian names, but with the possibility of a shortened version that still retained its South Asian identity.  I am happy to say we were successful on this with all 3.  And my kids still come home groaning about the fact that an adult or teacher mispronounced their name (ironically usually not kids), but they understand the beauty of their names, in all of their forms and have been taught to be polite but firm in stating, “This is how to say my name!”

A name is an important part of who we are.  It is part of  our identity and often has a legacy ; either cultural, or passed down through the family, or symbolic etc…  So, take the time, when you come across a new name, to learn how to say it properly and honour the name and what it means for the person.  The name is owed respect; the person is owed respect.

But that’s just one Diva’s view!





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