Should Indian Americans Simplify Their Names?

Should Indian Americans Simplify Their Names?

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Yes, for, as Shakespeare wrote, “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

Over the past four decades of life in North America, my siblings have adopted Americanized avatars: my older brother, Nirmalkumar, became Norm; my sister, Savita, became Sammy; and my younger brother, Kamleshkumar, became Kam. And, through all the name-changing, my brothers and sister have remained quite sweet.

As for me, there was a time when people wanted to call me Roger. But I ended up settling for the mispronunciation of Raj with a soft “j.” Roger sounded like some smarmy, British, fair-skinned hero, with a penchant for starring in James Bond movies. Oh yes, there was that high-school English teacher who called me Rahesh, projecting sensitivity to the apparent Hispanic silent “j” in the middle of “Rajesh;” but since my parents raised me to respect teachers, I never did correct Mr. Levin.

Maybe I should have. But should I have gone by the full name on my American passport (Rajeshkumar Chhaganlal Oza)? That just seems like a recipe for confusion. Why confuse others or give them ammunition with which to ignore, tease, or bully? Unlike Bobby Jindal’s parents, my parents didn’t name me Piyush (which has the unfortunate whiff of a certain four-letter substitute for urine). I wasn’t compelled to borrow a name from “The Brady Bunch” as Governor Jindal apparently did. I was blessed with a name that retains its Indian-ness while being reduced to its three-letter essence. And while I would agree that Christopher is truly no easier than Krishnamurthi, I would respectfully suggest to prospective parents that they avoid naming their child a concatenation of all ten of Vishnu’s avatars: KrishnaMatsyaKurmaVarahaNarasimhaVamanaParashuramaRamaGautamaKalki. What’s wrong with Krish?

Looking to the future, my wife (Mangla) and I decided to give our children names that would be easy on all tongues, especially if each name was shortened to a palatable three letters. Just as “Rajeshkumar” became “Raj,” I imagined that our daughter, Anupama, would become Anu (which she happily did), and our son, Siddhartha, would become Sid (which he proudly didn’t). Isn’t that how it should be? We carry forward our identities from generations past and then choose how we want to live inside those identities.

Since I’m not an assimilationist, I do hope that when Mangla and I are blessed with grandchildren, those children will find their birth gifts from Sanskrit fitting nicely into the pantheon of names populating these United States of Amerigo Vespucci. And I hope that our children and their spouses consider not only the sweetness of their children’s personalities, but also the sweet-sound of their children’s names. While I delight in the name Gulabi, would I love a grand-daughter named Rose any less?

No, imagine if the immortal Bard was named Billy!

I have engaged in debates about Shakespeare’s line from Romeo and Juliet, bringing in arguments of linguistics, culture, and marketing. When it comes to names of South Asian Americans, is Ronny as sweet as Ranbir? Nancy as sweet as Nayna? Sam as sweet as Sameer? I think not.

When my paternal grandparents Chhaganlal and Vijayalaxmi came to this continent in 1965, they quickly turned into Chuck and Joy in the American socioeconomic context. Assimilation came with immigration. Thousands of people had names changed at Ellis Island by officers. Those early immigrants had little choice in the matter, but we do.

Some South Asians anglicize or simplify their names in order to make it easier for the white American majority. Make the majority feel comfortable, and your chances of success rise. Use a name “they” are familiar with, and they will trust you, do business with you, teach your kids, and accept you. Keep a hard-to-pronounce name, and risk being marginalized.

Fear of the unknown, appearing ignorant, or sounding stupid often holds people back from using names they haven’t heard before. In grade school, substitute teachers would pause on my full first name, struggle, and ultimately call out my last name when taking roll. They didn’t call on me later in the day either. Sure, it would have been easier for my parents to pick a nickname like Annie or Pam, but it wouldn’t have been the best choice in the long run, since the world has shrunk considerably over the last two decades.

It’s not just about South Asian names. Our current president, Barack Obama, may have gone by Barry in college, but the name on the ballot was Barack. Perhaps it was a calculated political decision, or a need to embrace his heritage. Whatever the reason, his election proved that our names need no longer be stumbling blocks to success.

In the last two years of teaching on the southwest side of Chicago, I was the one calling roll for thirty Latino children. I made a conscious effort to use and pronounce their names correctly: Jorge, not George; Manuel, not Manny; and Rosalia not Rose. In class we read Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea and practiced pronouncing, and understanding Urdu, Arabic, and Balti words and names. If we don’t keep and use our names, and make an effort to learn unfamiliar ones, our children may miss out on the excitement of our connected but diverse world. Indeed, in 2007, Harvard University said that one of the reasons for its curriculum overhaul was to overcome American “parochialisms.”

By pushing people to their limits, by giving them the chance to learn a new name, by feeding them tasty morsels of another language, we are not only retaining our heritage, we are taking a small step in eradicating ignorance and promoting diversity.

Dr. Rajesh C. Oza is a change management consultant.
Anupama R. Oza just completed two years with Teach For America.
Graphic by SJ Beez.