Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What is in a Name?

Some nights, days or a sunny noon, living in a foreign country bewilders and astonishes you. I believe I have been fairly exposed to most of the ideas surrounding America owing to an unorthodox, liberal upbringing, migration of ideas from the West in my country and being the generation that is a part of the cultural shift that India is in the midst of an upheaval of. Sure, we have our own boundaries but by and large, I was able to amend and adapt to the cultural setting of The States. I didn't have rude culture shocks nor did I go lamenting about how things are (better) in my country. As far as I am concerned, they're two different countries and have their own socio-cultural setting. While I make observations, my judgments are far reserved for thinking and for the sake of understanding these differences. I arrived here with an open mind and was prepared for pretty much everything I could ever fathom.

I realised I wasn't prepared for one thing when I did come here though: telling people my name. By that, I knew my name in its entirety (Hemalatha Venkataraman) wasn't going to be easy on people who don't have as many as eight different consonants for the alphabet 't' in their language. I expected that and so, I knew exactly what I was going to say when that question comes by (I say my full name very quickly sometimes just to catch some of them smile in confusion and go 'Whaaaat?'). I was going to tell them and teach them the way to say my name. That was a fairly simple plan of action.

However, what I was not prepared for was this question: 'What would you like to be addressed as?'

It is by far the weirdest cultural shift for me and I still can't help but smile at the gentle reminder that I am in another country but my own when this question crosses my radar. You see, it's not a question we frequently deal with in India. People ask you what your name is and you answer them. I've never been asked what I want to be called as in my life until I moved here and frankly, it's not a question that ever struck me. I never thought twice before I uttered my name in response. I have students who prefer being called something else from what their record states. A recent acquaintance said he wished to be called by a different name (that he thought suited him more as he saw it fit on someone else he admired) when he was younger and his family obliged. I have friends who like their name being pronounced only in a certain way and ask to be addressed so and I believe I like the sense of identity that one establishes through that choice.

We don't really have that concept back home. No one has asked me how I'd like to be addressed and it was very interesting to me the first few times people asked me so. I have been silently contemplating how I would like to be addressed. 'Hemu' is a nickname that only my family uses (and so, I was/am a little uncomfortable projecting it publicly for everyone's use) and 'Hema' seemed too generic for my own conscious disposition. Also, my name offers varied meanings depending on what I may identify myself as. Hemu means 'gold', Hema alternatively means 'golden' or 'earth' and Hemalatha means 'vine of gold'. Another close meaning as a means of the variance with which one may say my name would mean 'Goddess made out of snow'. So, which one do I pick? Now that I am posed with a conscious choice, it's a little weird because I am very consciously disregarding/disrespecting the name given to me by my parents, from my cultural and societal lens.

On all of that roller-coaster for a cultural ride, I think it's a great question as a means of self-identification and introspection. If I am asked to associate myself with a calling of my choice as opposed to being socially and from a familial front, being assigned a name; I have already been made to think about what I would like to be known as, and that is a means of manifesting characteristics of who I see myself as and what I aspire to be. Gender, personal and social identities are being made clear of and people get to be more respectful of the other person's identities by asking them what THEY want to be known as. It's a concept I've come to appreciate for its forwardness of thought and scope for showing one's respect.

On a much personal note, I was out dancing one night when I had to explain my name for a full ten minutes to a complete stranger. Amidst all the dancing, here was someone who I didn't know, trying to say my name right. It's strange for me to identify myself as Hemalatha as it always seems to put a distance between me and the person addressing me, formal and full as it is. I eventually give people here options but I must confess all the times I loved them trying to say my common Indian name. It's exciting for me to have someone inquire after my name, something (beautiful in its own way) I've taken for granted this long. I have never been so excited, proud and identified by my ethnic name as much as I enjoy it now, and for that... thank you, America.

P.S: One of the chief reasons I go by the shortened version of my name that I do currently employ is because it's far easier to explain it to my American counterparts and because it is my pen(cil)-name. What's that you ask?

It's Hey-Moo! (Like saying hi to a cow!)


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  1. Americans call me 'Ra-hool'. Ah, it feels nice to have a 5-letter name. :p

    1. Haha! The enunciations are very interesting, aren't they... Rahooool? :D


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