Learn How To Say Our Names Right

By Vaathsalya Karpe

On Oct. 16, Sen. David Perdue (R-GA) mocked Sen. Kamala Harris’ name at President Donald Trump’s rally in Georgia. 

He started to say, “The most insidious thing that Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden are trying to perpetuate, and Bernie, and Elizabeth,” but then he got lost on a racist rant, “and KAH-mah-la, or Kah-MAH-la, or KAH-mah-la or Kamala-mala-mala, I don’t know, whatever.” And rather unsurprisingly, the crowd laughed in response, therefore, encouraging it.

Sen. Perdue and Sen. Harris have been colleagues for about four years now. Not only is it immature to not respectfully address your colleague, but it shows a lack of basic courtesy and dignity. Even if he somehow didn’t bother to remember how to pronounce her name — even though news channels have been blaring it ever since she was selected as the Vice Presidential nominee — the least he could’ve done was to address her as Sen. Harris. It is racist — Sen. Perdue probably made that joke to characterize Sen. Harris as “different” and to portray her “otherness” as a negative, but in reality, the only people who found this entertaining were his audience. 

A name is more than just a name. It is the basis of your identity. It carries your heritage, your culture, your roots. People change their legal names if it doesn’t “feel” like themselves, so to mock someone’s name is to ridicule their entire sense of being. It is disgusting, distasteful and goes beyond politics. I bet Sen. Perdue has never had to think about all of this. I’m not quite sure if he’d understand the gravity of what a name is either, if someone explained it to him, maybe not after 70 years of being alive. 

In 2018, when I came to UW–Madison as an international student from India, I quickly realized that I simply wasn’t prepared for some things. No amount of binge-watching American TV shows and movies or listening to my relatives’ experiences with immigrating abroad, could’ve prepared me for some of the culture shocks I’ve had to face.

One of them was seeing how my fellow international students were employing American accents just for the sake of being understood quicker and better by everyone else. I’ve even seen many of my fellow international students mispronounce and butcher their own name just to fit the mouths of their American peers better. Either they do that, or go by completely different names. 

My name is Vaathsalya. It means love and affection in my mother tongue, Telugu. My name isn’t easy or common by any means. Not in India, and certainly not in the U.S. At 10 letters, it is quite a mouthful. I’ve never known a life that didn’t have me repeating my name twice in most instances. I was more than used to hearing my name pronounced wrong, so when I came here, it didn’t make sense for me to suddenly start mispronouncing my name to give someone an easier time. I’ve been through this my whole life, and I’m ready to go through it again. 

But it broke my heart to see my fellow international people be completely unprepared for it — for them to swallow nervously when doing icebreakers for introductions in classes and clubs, for them to repeat their names and get annoyed at the disinterest and disrespect. 

I’ve seen first-generation immigrants (children of at least one foreign-born immigrant) go all their lives pronouncing their own names incorrectly, willingly morph it into something that doesn’t sound like their name anymore. If they can’t do this, they go by nicknames, usually shortened versions of their already-morphed names. And sometimes, the parents end up using this strange version of their child’s name as well.

When introducing themselves, they say, “My name is __, but you can call me __”. They don’t even give a chance to the other person to try and learn how to pronounce their name, and you know why? Because they probably did in the past and it never worked out. So they think, why even bother?

Personally, I’ve had professors say, “Vaath—you know what, I’m not even going to try to pronounce it.” They probably mean well, you may justify, they don’t want to pronounce it wrong. I understand. But it’s their absolute resignation before even attempting to pronounce it, their nonchalant attitude while giving me an excuse that hurts most. They brush it off like it’s no big deal when I’m sitting there, experiencing anxiety and the hassle of repeating my name until they get it right. It’s something I’m choosing to put myself through, but it shouldn’t have to be this way.

It’s traumatizing. It makes you feel like you’re the embarrassment, you’re the inconvenience, you’re the troublemaker. 

Fortunately, I’ve also had professors who were beyond kind at trying to pronounce it. Professors who’ve privately asked me to stay back after class and try and get the pronunciation right. Professors who were willing to work with me and not let their mistakes and humiliation get in the way. Professors who were beyond apologetic and sincerely made an effort. I’m still impressed when professors get it right on the first try. Although there were just a few, it makes me wonder — if they can be this way, why can’t others do the same? Why can’t others afford me this respect? Am I asking for too much?

I once asked a friend, “Why do you do this? Why do you go by a nickname and not your actual name? Your name is a very easy and very common Indian name, and yeah, you might have to repeat yourself once or twice, but it should be fairly uncomplicated… is it not?”

She sighed and replied, “Well… you’re right. But I’ve tried all semester, I’ve split my name into syllables and tried getting it across, but they still mispronounce it. I hate hearing my name be deconstructed that way, so I’d rather use a nickname than do this.”

Why should we have to do this to be respected and accepted in our classrooms, social circles and workspaces?

I’ve been asked several times, “Is there a nickname I can call you by? I’ll remember it easier.” And I smile sheepishly, before I say, “No, I don’t go by a nickname but feel free to ask me how to pronounce my name, I don’t mind repeating it.”

And it’s not just professors, it’s also coworkers, members in a group project and members of a club. I try to be as accommodating as possible, but I never, ever apologize for having my name. 

However, so many immigrant couples give their children easier, westernized names because they don’t want their children to go through what they’ve gone through. They don’t want their child to suffer and be bullied and have to spell out their “unusual” names with every customer service representative on the phone. Again, well-intentioned, but it’s erasing a piece of their history.

There was a now-removed post on Reddit where the poster, a North Indian living in the U.S., expressed regret over naming their son Aryan — which means “noble” in Sanskrit and is a very, very common name for a boy — because whenever someone inquired, they thought they were Brown Nazis. 

Western people come into our countries and our homes and lose their minds over symbols that have been appropriated by another Western country, despite the fact that our symbols existed for thousands of years before that.

For example, in the Western world, the Swastika (tilted right at a 45-degree angle) is a symbol of facism, associated with Hitler and Nazis. But before Hitler appropriated the symbol, it was known and admired as a symbol of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism all over the world. In these religions, the Swastika is a religious icon and a symbol of divinity, good luck and auspiciousness. A lot of the Western world argues now that because the symbol has been tarnished by Hitler, we must never use it again. But why do we have to cater to the Western world and erase who we are? Why do we have to pretend to be someone we’re not?

Coming to the real-world consequences, studies have revealed that people with difficult names — and I don’t mean easy names spelled weirdly to be unique like KVIIIlyn instead of Kaitlynare less likely to get call backs for job applications. Whitewashed applications — whether it’s opting to use a westernized name or to tone down mentions of race in their resumes — were more likely to be successful. Having “difficult” names also means your inputs might carry less weight, you might not get called on for suggestions and so on because of the hassle of learning and pronouncing your name, and your career grows at a slower pace. 

Did you know that former governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley’s full name is Nimrata Haley and former governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal’s full name is Piyush Jindal. Both children of Indian immigrants. 

But—” you may say, “when you’re a foreigner in a nation where you’re likely going to be living for the next several years, why not just adapt to the country and do as it’s required? Whatever it takes to survive. Why are you making such a big fuss over all this? Yeah, Americans can’t pronounce your name but so what? If it’s such a big issue to you, why don’t you just… leave? This country is benefitting you more than you’re benefiting the country, you can be replaced in seconds, millions of people are fighting to be in your position, so why can’t you just accept a little bit of inconvenience instead of complaining about it?”

I’ve thought about it a lot. But I’m not asking for too much. I personally believe it’s insulting to completely westernize yourself and forget your roots and where you come from. I also think it’s not right when you’re immigrating to a nation but refuse to try to integrate, refuse to follow a newer way of living and be so rigid in your roots and abide by rules and laws of the land you’re no longer in. I think the best way to go about immigrating is by finding the balance. And I think pronouncing your own name right falls within this category.  

All of us leave behind our whole lives, our families and loved ones, and are stepping outside our comfort zones to make a better life for ourselves. It’s not easy. It’s the hardest thing most of us have to do and ever will. We’re going through this expensive, intensive and laborious process just to get a shot at better opportunities. We’re doing our best to adapt and integrate to a new nation, thousands and thousands of miles away from home, from everything we’ve ever known.

So if we can do so much, the least you can do is learn how to say our names right.

Vaathsalya Karpe (she/her/hers) is a staff writer and graphic designer for Bell. She is a junior at UW-Madison majoring in Computer Science with certificates in Graphic Design, and Integrated Studies in Science, Engineering and Society (ISSuES).

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