by Neethi Srinivasan – University of Michigan
What’s in a name? Contrary to Shakespeare, apparently a lot. As my friends and I watched the Super bowl a few weeks ago, the topic of ethnic names came up. Why do some Asians (Indians, Chinese, Japanese, etc.) change their traditional names to western alternatives? According to some of my friends it is because ethnic names can greatly affect first impressions and relationships.
Though at first I disagreed with this argument, one of my friends shared her personal experience with this topic. Her legal name is Bhargavi, but since coming to college she often introduces herself as Gavi. Though it seems like a trivial change, she argued that when she introduced herself to others as “Gavi” rather than “Bhargavi” she found that people were more at ease with her and there was more of a personal connection that was established. She continued to say that when she introduced herself as “Bhargavi” people would seem detached and uneasy.
Phonetic familiarity, apparently, is key to successfully navigating through American society. That’s arguably why the governor of Louisiana (who is Indian) goes by Bobby Jindal (rather than his legal name Piyush Jindal) or why many Chinese immigrants have Christian as well as traditional names. According to another friend, research has shown that there are certain sounds that create a sense of comfort. For example, names that end in the sound “e” usually have kind and comforting connotations (ex. sweetie, cookie… jelly…clearly, I am hungry!).
After talking with my friends I found it extremely disheartening that many Asian immigrants felt that they had to change their names in order to be accepted into our society. Aren’t we the melting pot of the world, the land of social acceptance? As I reflected on my own personal experiences I realized that there have been times where my name (especially my last name) has caused uncomfortable social situations. One moment that stuck out to me was in high school when one of my teachers was calling roll. He would address other students properly by their last name, but when he came to my last name he just exclaimed “the person with the whole alphabet in their name.” Though everyone thought it was funny, I found it extremely offensive. It seems (both now and then) that there is this inherent apprehension regarding the pronunciation of Asian names.
However, in my own experiences, I have found this reaction is not seen with eastern European names (ex. Russian), which are often times as confusing and complicated as any other Asian name. Why is there this double standard? I personally feel that all names should be treated in an equal and unbiased fashion. I also feel that if you can pronounce Tchaikovsky you sure as hell can say Srinivasan.