Wednesday, June 7, 2006

Beyonce & Indian identity issues

Was it not the great poet Beyonce who once made the timeless request "Say my name, say my name" ? While it seems like an easy enough request to answer, I guess the philosopher/rapper DMX would swiftly reply "What's my name ?" (with dog barking in the background).

When it comes to Indian kids the fact is that we usually end up with 4 different names by the time we're 18. In order they are:

1. our actual name (e.g. Sanjay, pronounced "Sun-jay")
2. an easy to say nickname that follows a "normal American" name (e.g. Jay!)
3. the Indian nickname (e.g. Sanj)
4. an Anglo-sized full name prounciation of #1 (e.g. San-Jaaay)

The actual name (#1) is of course what our parents properly called us as we were growing up. However somewhere around high school people stop getting teased over funny names and an easier labeling is used. In this case it's just "Jay." (#2) Of course no one in Sanjay's family really uses this nickname. It only exists outside of the household.

Relatives and other Indians resorts to the desi-er nickname of "Sanj."(#3) Finally when you get to college your forward thinking, liberal-minded, progressive, and ethnically-conscious friends try to use your full name. Only they don't actually prounce your name as your parents do. Instead it gets a slight tweaking, e.g. San-Jaaay. (#4) I can almost hear it in my head of the typical screams that you hear in a college dorm hallway, where some girl is yelling "Does anyone know where San-Jaaaaay is?" Also in college friends start using the childhood ethnic nickname with great success. (e.g. Sanj).

Now it would be easy for me to end my note here and let you ponder the merits of this observation. But at this point in time a curious development occurs which almost every Indian kid is confronted with and I would argue accepts. As we get older and we meet new people and they ask our names, we immediately respond with the Anglo-sized version of our names. This is incredible for a one simple reason: When you are younger it may be a necessity because you don't wanna be overly teased, but when you are older you're arguably in the presence of more mature people. Why do you accept the Anglo version? What's going on?

The answer of course is rather simple, it's easier for people to understand and pronounce. But what's odder is the underlying truth, frankly at some point you get to an age where it's actually a little bit weird to hear your name pronounced "properly" by Others....and if I may indulge for a second and go the extra semi-racist step, by "Others" I mean people not Indian.

Now if you're a non-desi reading this, hear me out. Do not get offended because this curious identity factoid of "the Other" is a lot more benign than it sounds at first. When I'm around Indian people or in India, I expect my name to be enthno-sized (or is it really spelled "ethno-cized"?) and have the proper pronounciation. But the fact is that I've heard the Anglo version of my name for so frequently that I actually identify myself with it.

The proper pronounciation of my name Shekhar stresses the second syllable "khar" a tad bit more than the first syllable. But the reality is that I've just said my name as "Shaker" long enough to identify with it. I actually think it's a bit odd to hear the ethnic-pronounciation from unexpected sources. Case and point, I'm not sure if anyone has said my brother's full name in the last 20 years.

Confused yet? Okay well this all takes one more twist.

While I identify with the "Shaker" pronounciation of my name and prefer hearing it in general, deep down I do like it when I hear my name said like the way my mom says it. So if you read this far I'm sure I've done one of two things, either (A) thoroughly confused everyone or (B) hopefully been able to put into words something which I've observed in my own life that others have experienced. I've never really put this thought into words, but the seeds of it began the first time I went to an Indian club meeting in college and everyone introduced themselves by their Anglo-sized pronounciations as opposed to their "proper" prounounciations... even though they were in a group of their ethnic peers.

Now the reality is that I could just be imposing my own feelings and observations upon all Indian kids in general, but I think I'm onto something. The important exception to all this includes the random kids who rediscover all their ethnic roots in college and go off the deep end a little in reconstructing their own identity. For the lack of a better word, I tend to consider them as desi-nazi's.

So in summary, if you're going to call me by my full name, call me "Shaker" because that's what I prefer... except when it's "Shekhar"....

Ain't the question of identity a real biaatch?


Sony Pony said...

sure is, shakes:)

witnee said...

thanks a lot, now everytime I say your full name I will forever question the pronunciation! I guess I'll just stick shakes or hey you.

Everything in Transit said...

I totally understand where you are coming from. My name, Vidya, has been shortened to "Vi" amongst my american, and even some Indian friends. My parennts affectionately call me "Vidhu" at home. In another example, my brother's name, Sriram, has been shortened to simply "Sri" which is how everyone knows him.

Thanks, "Shakes" Shekhar.

Never Said I Was Clever said...

Not to get all "I'm ethnic too" on you but filipinos have a thing about nicknames. Jes and I have a Tita Baby, a Tita Bo-pee, and a Tita Chicken (i'm sure there are more but i can't think of them now).

My name Elizabeth (truely anglo) has been broken down and rebuilt so many different ways that I have difficulty introducing myself. As a child i was Liver, Libby, Lizzy, Liz, Beth, Betsy, Bitty, and Lizard. Not to mention: Little Fatty, Small-fry, Tidbit, Funny Face...

To this day my grandmother calls me Liver. But with her accent it's pronounced Leee-Ver. With a slight ally-oop type sound in the middle that makes me think i'm in trouble.

Asian Friend said...

DUDE! When I first met you, I asked you about the pronunciation of your name, whether it's supposed to have the "khar" with an extra bit of stress and you were like, no, it's Shaker. And I was like, really?? And you said, even my mom says Shaker.

So what do you have to say to that, hmmm?

Happy-Go-Lucky said...

Here's a funny one.
My friend Manjunathan, was called somthing like Manhattan by our new american colleague. He thought "j" is "h" like most mexican/spanish names. Poor Manju, you should have seen his face!