Excuse Me! My name is Saumya!
What’s in a name? Mispronunciations, awkward moments and sometimes even an identity crisis if your name is Saumya Bhutani.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh
As Indian-Americans, I believe we occupy a unique space in the realm of ethnic minorities inhabiting this land known as the U S of A for a few reasons, including our difficult-to-pronounce names.
Now I know what you’re thinking: There are so many different ethnicities with names that are hard to say! However, if we really do examine other ethnic groups in this country, Indians are the majority minority when it comes to having tricky names.
Asian names can definitely trip people up, but most Asians have opted for ‘American’ names for their children and given them more traditional names as middle names. Most Latino and Hispanic names have become quite ingrained within American society that while we may not say them with the correct accent all the time, we can generally pronounce them without too much hesitation or difficulty. Eastern European and Middle-Eastern names can be tough as well. While I admit that there are other ethnicities that have a stake in this battle for names, I’d like to claim that those of us hailing from the subcontinent do represent the largest group of people with names that most Americans cannot pronounce.
However, with this honour and title come many awkward situations. Most of you are probably familiar with what I am referring to, unless your name is Alisha, Maya, or Nikita. In that case, I will probably harbour a slight resentment towards you and wonder if your parents named you that specifically because they knew you were going to be raised in this country and wanted to save you from a lifetime of explanations and clarifications.
Jokes aside, I’m sure all my desi gals and guys out there can relate to the following situations:
What to tell the barista at Starbucks! They’re never going to get it right… Should I spell it out for them? Should I let them go have a field day and write whatever they think is closest? Is it worth even telling them my real name? I’ve seriously considered just saying my name is Sarah or Sam because in the loud high-stakes environment that is my local Starbucks at 8 am it would make everyone’s lives easier.
On a similar note. What to tell hostesses when putting your name down at a restaurant?
Usually this process is not as time-sensitive or tense as Starbucks at 8 am. One has time to stand there, sound it all out, and even spell it out for the hostess at TGI Friday’s so that you can feel that you’ve gotten the respect you deserve before being seated to dig into some of that delicious fried macaroni and cheese.
Still, sometimes when I’m out to dinner with my family, and my parents will think I’ll ‘feel special’ giving the hostess my name, I’d still rather give one of theirs which happen to be easier than mine. (A great irony considering they grew up in India where they would have had the liberty of not having to deal with such issues.)
When you’re meeting new people you have to come up with some mnemonic or catchphrase, or give them the phonetic spelling of your name to make their lives (and yours, I guess, easier). I honed this technique during college orientation when I would tell people, ‘It’s Saumya, like Sonia, but with an ‘m’ instead of an ‘n.’
It worked 99.9 per cent of the time, except when some idiot then said, ‘Oh, Monia?’ Whatever, I still take pride in it; I mean ‘SaumyaNotSonia’ is now my Twitter handle and Instagram username. (Plug: follow me, kids!) I probably won’t let go of this approach for a while as I realm into the real world of job interviews.
People will try to tell you that the way your name is spelled does not exist in the English language. A tennis coach once said to me, ‘Oh, I see… oh it’s ‘a’ next to the ‘u’ that’s throwing me off. We don’t have two vowels next to each other in English so I don’t know what sound that makes.’ At first, this lady had me fooled. ‘Ah, yes,’ I thought, ‘This is it! This is why people have always had so much trouble with my name. It all makes sense now.’ Ten minutes later: ‘Um, hi, Lauren.’ Double vowel and my double vowel.
That dreaded first day of school and classes. The teacher or professor is taking attendance for the first time. You can almost anticipate when your name will come up because of alphabetical order. You’re ready to go with a sympathetic smile and correct them with ease. ‘I’m so sorry…I’m going to totally butcher this.’ It must be you! You interrupt as soon as you hear the first syllable. ‘It’s pronounced... don’t worry, I’m used to it.’
While this issue is most pervasive the first day, sometimes teachers will still struggle for a bit and so you continue correcting them, but besides that you’re good to go for the rest of the school year until (cue dramatic sound effects ~dun dun dun~) you have a substitute teacher! This probably doesn’t affect you if you’re in college, but until the end of high school whenever you had a sub you had to face the same trials and tribulations as on the first day of school. How badly will they screw it up this time? Or will they not bother to even make an attempt in the hope of saving you some misery?
This is related to the last two, but I just have to add that in college I’ve had two Indian professors struggle with my name longer than, in fact, non-Indian professors. What’s up with that?! So even within the Indian community, my name is tough!
But even if these professors couldn’t pronounce it to begin with I would have hoped that their own experiences would have provided them with some more empathy for me, which, in turn, would have driven them to make a stronger effort to get it right quickly. But nope. One of these aforementioned professors even called me ‘Samantha’ once. Isn’t that odd?
Actually the professor that called me ‘Samantha’ has even sent me emails with my name spelled wrong. This brings me to yet another issue: people spelling my name wrong when they address me in emails! I get it, it’s an email so it’s casual not an official document, like a letter. But when you type in my email address in the ‘To’ from anyway my name automatically pops up, particularly in my school’s email system. Even my own cousin has done this. I cried for a few days.
Finally, you’ll get so tired of correcting people, acquaintances, teachers, friends, tennis coaches, what have you, that you’ll let them pronounce your name any which way they like. You’ll, then, respond normally each time they say your name that they’re convinced they’ve got the pronunciation down perfectly. Not only is this problematic, but your mind will waver -- one day you’ll think, ‘Hey, I am tired of so-and-so saying my name incorrectly.’
Alas, you are now in a sticky situation. How can you correct someone, especially a good friend, after months of leaving them under the pretence that your name is, in fact, ‘SAW-m-YA?’ ‘Hey Lauren, I’m so glad we’re so close and I feel like I can tell you anything, but um, there’s something I’ve been keeping from you; you’ve been saying my name wrong for the past year. It’s actually pronounced…’ Awkward.
The worst consequence, however, of having a name that’s difficult to pronounce is the identity crisis it may give you. I grew up speaking with the English alphabet, much to my parents’ dismay, and so this was the alphabet I used to say my name.
As I grew older and more conscientious of how people were saying my name, I realised there were slight variations in the pronunciations, from my friends to my teachers to myself... to my parents and other Indians! So not only were the predominantly white spaces around me screwing up my name, but apparently I was, too!
Had I become the ultimate hypocrite? Was I placing the appropriate emphasis on the ‘au’ like my parents did? I would whisper my name to myself and listen carefully to what it sounded like.
I wanted to maintain the cultural roots of my name, and not end up an ABCD who tells everyone, regardless of ethnicity, the ‘white and easy’ version of their name, thereby forgoing its unique sound and origin. This is an incidence that happens too often, especially to those with ‘t’ or ‘d’ in their name, of which there are multiple sounds in Hindi.
I panicked. ‘Who had I become?’ I thought. Did I really know myself and know who I was if I could not even say my name the right way? Had I gotten lazy and just gone along with whatever pronunciation came my way and thus, compromised the beauty of my name?
To make things more complicated, my name had different spellings and different geographically based pronunciations within India. So who was saying my name correctly? What was the right way to pronounce ‘Saumya?’
I finally came to the conclusion that I was saying my name properly because I was pronouncing the way I wanted to, which was the way my parents did. After all, they were the ones to bestow it on me, so I believed that was how I should be called.
More importantly, I finally got over this ‘identity crisis’ because I realised my name was not actually, me. Yes, it was a word that people could use to refer to me or call me. More so, however, it was simply a neat label to package my various characteristics, idiosyncrasies, and experiences (culture clashes and mispronunciations included) -- perhaps a short form of my identity and me.
Saumya Bhutani, 21, is a student at Vassar College, New York.