Saturday, March 15, 2008

What's in a name?

Just the other day I was having lunch with a Chinese friend.

"So Florence" I asked her "Do you have a Chinese name?"

"Yup" she nodded "Its Fen"

"Nice name" I said "Anyone use it?"

"Only all my Chinese friends"

This instantly reminded me of two incidents - both related to having to give up a name.

A year into my first job in Chicago, one of my Chinese colleagues sent us all a rather curious email. It said something along these lines: "I have a name that you all know me by - Huan. But I've decided to take on an American name. Henceforth I shall be called Ed". Needless to say the adjustment took a while.

I've come across a lot of Neels, Rags' and Kris' to treat this bit of cultural adjustment as trivial. If I had an eight syllable name, it would give me pause just about anywhere leave alone the US where people verbally joust with names like they were sinful leprechauns. In the Call Center era, this phenomenon reached new heights as names were assumed with reckless abandon (Hi, I'm Parvati, but you can call me Jen)

You'd think with a simple name like Aspi, I would be impervious to this problem. Not so. Aspi is a terribly difficult name to get right based on how its spelled in English. So everyone ends up pronouncing it like I piddle with the wrong end (think about it).

I'm also guilty of trying to vault over the name sometimes - although only with those that don't matter. Earlier, I would routinely put my name down as Bruce Lee while waiting for a lunch table at a restaurant. This would have the following advantages: (1) I didn't have to spell out my name each time and endure the agony of someone mangling it ten minutes later (2) You'll be amazed how much fun it is to hear "Bruce Lee, your table is ready" and (3) I was always amused by first the confusion and then the guilt that crossed the Maître de's face when I showed up.

Often enough one of my best friends Jim would tease me to give that name up. And I would tell him it wasn't the name but the commitment to diversity that mattered. "Even simple names can be mispronounced" I'd argue.

And I kid you not, right on cue Huan would usually walk in and say "Jeem!" (followed by some variation of "Your code sucks and is crashing again!") Yes, single syllable American names can suffer the same fate.

So here is the second story: my middle name - which happens to be my father's name - is Jimmy. Dad always kept this name for various reasons - his real one being Jamshed. He kind of, sort of, got that name partly because he grew up in Daman among some Portuguese-speaking people and partly because Parsis often like to pretend they are superior Anglos.

When I first came to the US, as is our family tradition, I used all three names: first, middle and last. And wouldn't you know it: everyone started calling me Jimmy. This annoyed me no end. At one point even my bank sent me a letter that started "Dear Jimmy, We regret to inform you [that you are almost broke]..."

After much reflection I simply stopped using Jimmy. It broke Dad's heart as it did mine.

But sometimes a name is so important you just have to let it go.



ritha said...

aspi (in the amroo accent) my sympathies are with you! Hilarious post. It cracks me up when i listen to the american names of chinese ppl. Atleast desi people shorten their original names and americanize it, but with chinese amroo names, there's no connection! Simply fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Oh so true....I shortened my *very* S.Indian name in school to something that sounds vaguely Swedish(or so I've been told, I don't know Swedish) - and now everyone including my parents uses that short form :(


Anonymous said...

Someone I know recently visited China and met people who had been ASSIGNED English names by their teachers in school. Not making this up.

Spruha said...

Great post!

OK, so I personally refuse to go by anything but Spruha. But it often gets butchered to something to the extent of 'Sabruha' or 'Supra'.

This post reminds me of the confusion (and hilarity) on the first day of Spanish class in high school, where the teacher had us pick out our 'Spanish Names' for the class. Do you have to have a Spanish name to speak Spanish?? Still doesn't make any logical sense to me!

Amrita said...

HAHAHAHA @ Bruce Lee. During my one year of Midwestern purgatory people simply refused to pronounce my name so I shortened it to Rita (they kept calling me Ritha anyway coz they thought I was saying "I'm Ritha" when I said "Amrita"). Anyway, Rita died an abrupt end when I got my first job and we had a little welcoming session and were asked to come up with a fun adjective that began with the same letter as our name - my mind totally blanked and the only thing that came to mind was Raunchy. I thought about it for a couple of seconds and decided it was better to be Adventurous Amrita than Raunchy Rita. I then moved to NYC and all ended happily.

PS- erm, how DOES one pronounce your name? I've been saying it wrong I think. :blush:

Cinderella said...

After reading all this,i'm so glad no one messes up my name!atleast not the first one:)

a person i know very well has the same name as yours and i know very well how it is butchered.they hardly ever get it right.most of the time she isn't called the right way.but nevertheless,Spruha is a beautiful name.i love it!:)
and i must say,my name has been an inspiration from the meaning of ur name,'conscience'!

m said...

i've got a sikh name too, they chose it during naam karan.. the chosen letter was M.
When my mom got my name registered Megan became my first name and my sikh name became middle name.

headmistress said...

@ amrita -Adventurous Amrita and Raunchy Rita!? they sound like names for some comic cartoon strip duo - I can already imagine their madcap shenanigans...

names are such odd things. mine is only a matter of tweaking - from an indian (or arabic actually) pronunciation, to the english/biblical version. But it's so disorientating if someone on the wrong side uses a wrong version...

and how do you pronounce 'aspi'?

anu g said...

Fun-post Aspi:)! My sis spent days looking for baby names which she thought could be pronounced easily. Yet she says she is surprised people still manage to mess it up.
Amritha, I have a feeling I've also been pronouncing Aspi's name wrong:)I hope he clarifies it soon.

Joules said...

I had picked the American name Rachel because my name starts with R and I was simply in love with the Rachel character on friends. Usually used it only at restaurants and stores. My friends and colleagues call me by my Indian name.

One time I am at the trial room at a store and the store employee kept calling 'Rachel, how are your clothes working out' and I did'nt realize she was talking to me.

Since then I started using more of my Indian name, although I still give out Rachel when I dont feel like spelling my name.

Spruha what does your name mean? I had never heard that name before.

Amrita said...

HM - more like a sex video featuring busty babes! :D
I cant decide whether people with biblical names have it easier or harder: otoh their names dont get mangled that often but then people must be using the pronunciation thats most familiar to them.

Spruha - add me to th chorus that wants to know the meaning of your name. Never heard it but it's pretty.

AnuG - you make me feel better :)
Come on, Aspi, how do you say it?

Joules said...

Amruta, your adjectives remind me of the older days filmfare awards (not sure if they still do it) when they would use adjectives as such to describe the actresses who were coming to present the award - ravishing Raveena or the mesmerizing Madhuri or the sizzling Sridevi.

Is there any name that works in both lands (India and the US)? One name I could think of is Trisha. I have a niece by that name but then my UP relatives pronounce is Trisa that drives me up the wall.

Joules said...

Sorry Amrita, I have a friend who spells her name Amruta.

Lata P said...

I feel bad for all who had to let go of their names.For me It is difficult to do so.As a woman we let go of our last names in marriage and then to let go even the first name the parents have given due to any reasons is not easy.Here the Americans are very well aware of their inability to pronouce anything outside english correctly.Some make all attempts to pronounce it correctly,some people deliberately pronounce it wrong or make some feeble attempt to pronounce correctly.But we have the same problem in India too.I had mentioned that in one of the Aspi's articles.Besides the southern states , english is read as they would read hindi.They don't read english as english. Talking about China,did you know that the happy man that is used a symbol of luck is actually Raja Kuber. Also they have something like the gothram that the south has.

Sania said...

Yeah - you'd think Sania would be easy. My parents named me with the consideration that anything more difficult would be hard for westerners to pronounce. Didn't quite work out as planned, though.

I get Sonia, Shania, Sandra, Sane-ya, and probably everything in between. Why does Tania have it so easy, and Sania gets the short end of the stick?

I believe Aspi is pronounced Us-pee, at least it was in Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd! Until then I had been thinking of it as Asp, as in the bug.

Aspi, I bet in your line of work you've probably heard a ASP .NET joke made with your name, eh?

ritha said...

H&R- thts shocking!
Lata P- I heard the same. That before a couple gets married, the government checks to see if they belong to the same gothram, and can only marry if they dont.

Ppl wanting to know how to pronounce Aspi- check out honeymoon travels pvt. ltd. movie, abhay deol's character is called "Aspi"...pronounced like 'uspy'.

Mind Rush said...

I have a very Indian name and I wear it with pride. My true name is who I am. It angers me that ignorant folk want to deny my heritage and not stretch themselves.

My fiesty friend once told her cowboy colleagues: "If you can learn how to say SCHWARZENEGGER, you can learn any Indian name."

Way to go!

Sania said...

At 1:43 - Aspi. :)

anu g said...

Amritha, its surprising isnt it, that we pronounce the A in our names as 'um' and 'un', but when it comes to Aspi, its pronounced as the a in apple.
Surprisingly just last week, my son walked up and read Aspi;s funny pics and captions on the drift and announced 'In the summer hols, I am also going to chat on Aspi's drift'.He pronounced it right ....but I corrected him:). Sorry Aspi!

Aspi said...

Sania, thanks for that vid clip. Its is indeed pronounced like that. A as in bus is what I tell people.

I don't get ASP.NET much but ASPI actually stands for Advanced SCSI Programming Interface (if you use windows, you'll actually have some files named ASPI in your win folder) and I get some mild crap for that.

Now having read Amrita's story and those comments, I feel like handing adjectives to everyone like it was Christmas. I'd be Adirindi Aspi and although that might not make much sense, it does sound cool.

Cinderella said...

joules and Amritha,

Spruha means 'consciousness',if i'm not wrong!

i wrote it wrong the last time,sorry!

Cinderella said...

maybe 'Adirinche Aspi' wud be better:)

Aspi said...

What's adirinche? I went back and checked to confirm I used adirindi properly before Ritha shows up here and kicks my ass :)

ritha said...

I'll be watching ya....:P

Cinderella said...

Adirindi means 'hila diya' as they said and u said it right.
Adirinche means 'the person or the thing that makes the difference'...sorry couldn't put it in better words!
i hope u got it:-S

Spruha said...

All y'all - as far as I know my name (Spruha) means 'desire and longing' in Sanskrit.

Joules said...

How do you pronounce it? Is the u like "oo" or "aa"?

Spruha said...

The U sounds like 'oo'.

m said...

when i have kids, i will give them desi names just to be cute and quirky..

sharmila said...

I refuse to change my name, I keep it the way it is. Same with my other half. He even had a colleague tell him, "it's too hard to say Durgesh, so I'm going to call you Joe. Do you mind?". Durgesh replied that "Alison" is too hard for him to say, so he was going to call her "Savithri Amma", if she didn't mind.

Anyway, everyone at work calls him by his Indian name.

anu g said...

Spruha,I must confess i didnt realise urs was a Sanskrit name.Its beautiful!
In India, most grandparents decide the names of kids, and sometimes they are so common and ancient. We were asked (suggested actually)to name our son after Lord Krishna.When we looked up baby names for boys, it seemed as if every name was so common.Finally we zeroed in on a name which we thought only one person in the whole of India had. Even our relatives praised us for our choice.We used to beam with pride:). All this until we visited Mathura and found our son's name on every board..kirana shop, restaurant.........that day our ego took a royal beating:(.Anyway atleast he doesnt have 4 kids of his name in his class. I always had 3-4 people with the same name in my class, and it wasnt nice at all.

Cinderella said...

lata p,

what is a gothram?

Beth said...

Amrita, "midwestern purgatory"? First, booooo. I am considering being officially offended. ;) And second, where?

Trouble with pronunciation goes in all directions, as Aspi says. Most non-native speakers of English cannot say my name properly (and some native speakers too - I was called "Bet" in most parts of India I visited, unerstandably given how aspirated Ts usually get transliterated). But as long as I can tell someone is talking to me, that's what mattered. :)

Aspi, I've had your name wrong all this time too. Apologies!

sidekick said...

ROTFL --- although Aspi, I missed a nice Bruce Lee caption :). The BH once chose to list himself as Groucho Marx (as a huge fan of the Marx brothers) but we got such strange looks at the busy restaurant that he decided even the amusement wasn't worth it!

chinese-american dual names always provide much mirth coz its impossible to see how they're connected. i see it as a huge positive, coz in an age of bewildering choices the one thing we don't choose is our name. i think it's kinda nice to be able to pick one out, albeit within a amreekan friendly range!

more generally, i'm closer to beth on this. a rose by any other name ------and all that jazz! as long as people can identify me uniquely at first, i'm confident that the sheer force of my personality will compel them to remember me :P

Amrita said...

Beth - NOOOOOOOOO! I have an excellent excuse: I was living in Kalamazoo in a dorm room with 300 lb girl who refused to shower and when she did, she's sit around with her bathrobe gaping open and the windows wide open because the hot water made her too hot. She had a creepy mute boyfriend who lived with his grandmother, his grandmother's boyfriend, mother and sister (I think) in a trailer; and a racist grandma who was her only family coz her parents were abusive and DCS had taken her away - this was interesting because her bf was black. she refused to take her prozac coz she said she was broke and didnt answer the phone when the shrink called begging her to pick up the reciever and would laugh and cry at the same time. when her friends came to visit they huddled in a corner and slinked out the back door conveniently situated next to out door - they were apparently afraid of meeting people and open spaces and wanted to get back home asap. she wanted to give me a special nickname coz she wouldnt remember my name: she suggested fifi or foofoo. apart from these trifling details, she was very nice and helped me terrify my ex into keeping his distance. Nothing against the great state of michigan apart from that really. and chicago was only a couple of hours away. sigh.

Joules - at least you didnt call me Amrutha. :) Sheila works well everywhere. Meena and Maya too.

Sania / Ritha and Cinderella / Spruha - thanks for clearing that up :) I completely forgot about Honeymoon travels.

AnuG - yeah, I dont know why that is. Funniest is when I try to pronounce the titles of South Indian movies which invariably use words I've never heard of before or spell them completely different from how I would.

Aspi said...

You lived in Kzoo? Now that sounds rough.

Lata P I didn't understand that last line of yours either.

headmistress said...

@ amrita's story - you had me slackjawed with mild horror at the gaping bathrobe...

I have to say, I find this whole idea of changing names for convenience really odd.... is this quite common in the US? over here in the uk, we just struggle along with all our unpronouncable names...whether they're desi, deutsch, polish, whatever... the idea of taking on another identity, just for convenience or practicality, seems so surreal!

Joules said...

Where I live Austin, TX. people go out of their way to pronounce Indian names. (One of the BEST group of people I have met live in Austin)

My husband has been called with an american friendly nick name even in India but when our friends found out his Indian name they started calling him that. Infact, its funny I am use to calling him by the american sounding short name but they call him by his Indian given name.

Anyone watching the show "Rock and Roll Family". I have watched snippets and have liked Mauli-Sharad's hosting and Kajol-Ajay's judging. Infact, watching Kajol brought back memories of why I like her in the first place. (Love her voice and straight forward way of talking)

Lata P said...

Check the above link.

anu g said...

Ritha, just to clarify: No Indian 'Government' does any gotra check.Its used by people who want to match horoscopes generally.To put it in simple words, For eg, all brahmins are supposed to be descendants of various rishis like Bharadwaj,Kaushik etc, so if a boy and girl have the same gotra,its considered that they r from the same family, so such matches are not considered.Lata, I didnt know the Chinese follow this too:).

Aspi said...

Joules I saw most of it and if you liked it, you'll hate me when I write about it :) If only I can find a place to screen cap from :(

headmistress, that's an interesting thing to know. No Jankikishore Sharmas running around calling themselves "Nate" in the UK, then?

Beth, just so you know, you can call me anything you'd like. That goes for everyone else as well.

Aspi said...

Joules, regarding your question about names that work in both cultures:

John Abraham

Amazingly enough since our Indian friend is married to a Japanese, I know there are names that have meaning in both languages. And they sound pretty darn cool too.

anu g said...

But Aspi its not so cool when names have some different meanings in another language. My cousin , after much thought, named his daughter 'Kavya' but my sister's children went into peals of laughter cos it means 'guinea pig' in dutch.

undercover said...

i admit i used to be a total bitch to my fellow desi people.. Growing up in Oahu there weren't that many desi people and we had a girl called Pooja who used to always get picked on and got called "poo in a jar" etc and i never took her side.

Also when I moved to where i am and at college there was a teacher called Manhor Singh, and my friends used to always be like "Man Whore" *giggle giggle*.. and I would laugh with them.

Also, is it an etiquette to like announce your desiness to other desi people first time you meet? Because I never do that. Then when they hear my full name later they get all offended and go "OMG you never told me you were desi HOW could you?" or if they don't say it they imply it..

Beth said...

Amrita, you are totally absolved. What a train wreck!

Maybe we should just all go by symbols à la Prince.

Joules said...

Aspi, the problem with those names are they dont work in some parts of India. Ritha and John Abraham :) ofcourse are considered Christian names and Anita (sorry if I offend Anita's) is too common a name.

I am not sure about the south but North Indians have a penchant of coming up with unique first names. I would think Gujarati's also do. Hence the names of the characters in TV serials.

Can't wait for your write up of Rock and Roll Family. Its probably a show that is good in snippets but an overdose if you watch the whole show.

Aspi said...

undercover, that's a good question. How does one announce they are desi anyway - it just sort of happens.

Anonymous said...

More names that work well with everyone:

BTW, I'm totally planning on taking a list of potential names to the first redneck I come across and asking him to pronounce them all, when it's time to pick a name for my own kid.


desigirl said...

Ah, reminds me of the time when a Padmanabhan Iyer went to Amreeka and became Pat Iyer!

The Brits are no better at this game. I used to think that I had heard all forms of mangled up versions of my name till the midwife came up with a totally new one and floored me. sigh

desigirl said...

A.A and R.R? Sound like a porn duo!! you go girl! *wink*

Mind Rush said...

Sharmila, your partner's story was LOL! I did the same thing with a guy named Timothy who wanted to give me a John Doe type name. I asked if I could call him "Tamaatar" (meaning tomato). Well, his face turned the color of a tomato and he learned my name.

Headmistress, LOVE your input. I don't mind my name being butchered by someone who's trying. I hate when they don't want to try.

Aspi, great post. You hit a nerve.

Mind Rush said...

Beth, Amrita, speaking of the Midwest, some of the biggest Sanskrit scholars in the US are White and they teach at U of Chicago.

For example, if your name were Krishna, they would pronounce it "Krs-na."

In Chicago you can't judge a book by it's cover/color.

Cinderella said...

lata p,
so it means all the Brahmins are divided into just those few families.thats pretty cool!!

i din't watch Rock and Roll family ..i don't like the hosts!

Pat Iyer!!! LOL!!!!

the krishna and krsna reminds me- one of my friends who is named 'Shwetha' and wants to be called so was lectured for quite sometime by a professor of ours saying she is ruining her own name!!! she has to call herself 'Sw'etha and not 'Sh_'...we were like,c'mon!it's her name!how can he command and say how she's supposed to pronounce her own name!!

Cinderella said...

And am i the only one here living in India????

Aspi said...

Nope, anu g does. In fact she's our primary source for All India News and she's really good at it!

Anonymous said...

Growing up near Delhi and then working Gurgaon I never had much of the S. Indians class mates or colleagues, but when I came to the US most of my teammates were S. Indian and name torment began, I spell it Akhtar (which is Arabic or Persian) and has a "Kh" sound. I never get pissed off by wild pronunciations of my name as it is difficult for a person unknown to a language to pronounce the word perfectly. But what really bugs me is when it is misspelled as “Akthar” and that too people from India. Every time I get an email it starts with “Hi Akthar”, I can understand your fascination for the “h” following “t” everywhere but that’s not how I spell my name. Now it doesn’t sound nice to keep correcting people so I devised a unique way to get the message across, in an email chain every time my name is misspelled, in the reply I increase the font size of my name or mark my name in bold, some people understand and some just don’t care. With all the Javed Akhtar’s and Shoib Akhtar’s around the 2 syllable name still needs some help.

m said...

i hate these names given to desis


they are wayyyy sooo common.. sonia and sara are alsod esi names but still, get creative if you wanna choose a neutral name UFFF

i am glad i wasn't named one of these

Cinderella said...

seems like Anu g and i have more than 1 thing in common..hehe:)

girlie girl said...

I hate being busy at work! Being busy and acutally having work to do means I cant read up on your blog, Aspi. Nevermind that now, I'm back BABY! Great post Aspi! I loved the Bruce Lee part! I think I have a simple name...4 letters, 2 syllables...but i guess not! when i was in college, i used to always order food or make reservations under my roommate's name, Julie. It was just much easier to deal with than having to spell and pronounce my name...even though it's simple. But now, I am an uber-b*tch to people who cant say my name right...I agree, if you can pronounce SCHWARZENEGGER, then most Indian names are a piece of cake!!

Aspi said...

Glad to have you drop in. I hate having busy days at work too :) I haven't written anything yet for this week (although calling anya people and discussing the upcoming Bollywood power list has been good social fun).

anu g said...

Aspi,u seem to be doing some real heavy research on the Power List. Wow! Move away, Filmfare! Aspi;s Powerlist is going to be here soon:).

Aspi said...

Damn straight - if my upcoming post had a label it would say:

All organic - no chamchaagiri

Amrita said...

Akhtar - as a South Indian I have an explanation for the Akthar: thats how they pronounce it. It's true!