Reclaim your Name ✊🏻✊🏼✊🏽✊🏾✊🏿

My name is Sharada (Sha-ruh-tha), but for the majority of my life I have introduced myself as (Shar-duh) to save Non-South Asians the discomfort of saying my name correctly. I had been introducing myself as Shar-da to Non-South Asians for as long as I can remember. I have no clue why my name became ‘Shar-duh’ and not “Sha-RA-duh” or some other random pronunciation. Maybe it was just easier for my school teachers to say and that’s how people interpreted my name based off how my parents introduced me.

Saraswati

Saraswati

My parents’ last name is ‘Chengalvarayan’, but when I was born they decided to shorten it to ‘Rayan’.  I have so many memories of white people being so amused by my father’s name. My parents selflessly changed my name, because they didn’t want me to go what they went through. From my birth I was inherently taught that I must change who I am to accommodate to white people. My last name had been colonized. The earliest memories I have from school include me being bullied for my name. Sharada is another name for the Hindu goddess Saraswati - the goddess of wealth and knowledge, and a name that pays honor to my great-grandmother, a matriarch from my dad’s side of the family. Instead of calling me by my name, I was called Shart-a, Fart-a, and Retard-a.


Every single time I had a new teacher or substitute-I knew that they had gotten to my name on the attendance list when there was a long pause followed by a very confused look on their face. Most of the time, these adults would make a big deal about how complicated my name was. Because it made them so uncomfortable, they felt the need to alienate me from the rest of the class. During my school years, I found it humorous and would laugh it off. But these moments subconsciously made me foster so much hatred for my name, for my identity and my culture. Looking back on it now, it brings me a lot of sadness. My name is sacred.  “Your name is a spiritual vibration that summons you into the space that you are in. “ - Becca, a friend I made today. All throughout my life, I had been dishonoring my name.

My name represents my family

My name represents my family

I am not sure when exactly this clicked, but I think I started to pronounce my name correctly about a year ago, when I heard someone (a non-brown person) say my name correctly and my heart felt so full and I had butterflies. Is this how it should feel to be called by your name? It felt so amazing to be called by the name my parents gave me. Why was I depriving myself of this beautiful feeling, just to make other people feel more comfortable? From that day on, I started introducing myself with my real name. It was really hard and scary to do at first, but now when I introduce myself I say my name with pride, and I correct people when they pronounce it wrong. Most people were very receptive to my feedback, and actually appreciated it.

I currently work at an Indian café where most of the customers come from a South Asian background. When I pronounce their names correctly when calling out their filter coffee or chai, they usually give me such a big smile, and we both share a look of understanding and empathy. Some people still give me their initials and fake names (out of habit). Sometimes I call them out for this, but other times I let it be. I understand how exhausting it is to have to explain your name every single day.

Hasan Minhaj on Ellen

Hasan Minhaj on Ellen

I came to the realization that if I change the way I orally say my name, when I die, my name will die with me. All that will be left is a pronunciation of letters that exist only because it made a certain subgroup of people feel less uncomfortable. If I mispronounce my own name, I am letting my culture and identity slip, and am giving way into internalized racism. That is why I am reclaiming and decolonizing, my name. I want to empower others to do so as well. So here is my challenge for you. The next time you order coffee or meet someone new, say your original name. Pay attention to how it makes you feel. The next time, say your original name, and correct them if they pronounce it wrong. Notice how It makes you feel. Keep doing this until it becomes a habit. Reclaim your name.



Below are some thoughts that I received from people about their relationship to their names:

  • “2nd grade soccer team, coach wants to call me Sam, he says Samia is too complicated. I ask Mom. She says fuckkk that…I named you Samia and he can learn how to say it right. Not complicated at all. I was embarrassed at the time. Now I’m so so grateful she made me stand my ground. Today, I’m proud of my roots. I’m not gonna whitewash the beauty out of my identity to make other people comfortable“

  • “Sometimes distancing yourself from your name to escape stereotypes can be cathartic“

  • “It used to bother me so I shortened my name. It’s easy for me.“

  • “Sadly at a certain point you get more comfortable with the new pronunciation.“

  • “It doesn’t bother me if it’s their first time pronouncing it”

  • “Seen groups of Indians who all call each other by the white versions of their names“

  • “Other Indians from different areas pronounce my name wrong“

  • “I changed my name for work :(“

  • “I’ve started pronouncing my last name with an accent because that’s what it is.“

  • “I order food as Duba but now they call me dubs and it’s too late to tell them my real name.“

  • “Many non-BAME ‘misread’ my name as Sadie - even when I introduce myself as Sadia.“

  • “My parents gave me an English name and Chinese name. Thoughts?”

  • “When people mispronounce the mispronunciation.”


Here is some advice I have for people who feel targeted by this post and/or trying to feel more comfortable with names

  • Do not ever tell someone that their name is spelt wrong or that it should be pronounced differently. For example, I often get told that my name has an extra “a” in it. Sorry my name is too complicated for the English language 🤷🏽‍♀️

  • If you are meeting someone with a name that you have not heard before, take some time to actually try and pronounce it right. If you’re embarrassed about asking, get over it. People who have had to assimilate their names are embarrassed that they have to westernize or ‘white-wash’ their name for the comfort of others. They will undoubtedly respect you more as long as you try.

  • It is offensive to “rename” someone or give someone a nickname because their name is hard for you to pronounce. If you want to give someone a nickname, do it with the person’s consent. Names are personal, and you have no right to change someone’s name for your own comfort.


Do you feel attacked? Why? Do you have similar stories? Thoughts? Please feel free to add thoughts and questions in the comment section.

Why I Wear My Pottu 🔴

* Pottu: A pottu, or bindi is a adhesive dot, or powder (usually red) that is worn in between the eyebrows on women and sometimes men in South-Asian cultures. The pottu has many different significances. Spiritually, a pottu is worn to activate the Ajna Chakra, or the third eye. The pottu covers this chakra to contain the energy that moves up the spine during meditation. It activates the eye that is responsible for spiritual guidance. In some traditions, red pottus are worn to signify marriage, like a wedding ring. These days, pottus are used for aesthetic reasons because they CUTE. When I asked my Ava (dad’s mom) why she wore a pottu, she said she wore in in lieu of lipstick…interesting, right? 

While I write this post, I am sitting at a coffee shop in Seattle feeling a little bit nervous. I have changed something about my regular, everyday appearance - today is different. Today, I am wearing a pottu* in broad daylight, accompanied with western clothes for the first time. No, I am not going to the temple later, or to a traditional pooja (religious ritual) at a family friend’s house. I am wearing a pottu today because I am training myself to feel comfortable expressing myself through my South Asian culture, something I felt the need to compartmentalize for so long.

Shout to my Amma

Shout to my Amma

‘Why do I feel nervous?’ I ask myself. When I start thinking about it, not one specific thing comes to mind. A mixture of feelings from past experiences boil to the surface. These aren’t positive experiences, but experiences that one-by-one taught me that my South-Asian culture is something to be hidden in the Western world, something that should not be shown off. In middle school I felt emotionally crushed and betrayed when the henna on my hands was made fun of for looking like an waffle maker burn. When I was in India I felt so good about it, but after I got back from school that day, I went straight to the bathroom and vigorously tried to scrub the henna away. When I was planning my 10th birthday party sleepover, I told my mom I wanted to rent a Tamil movie (with subtitles) to watch with my friends (mostly white). My mom shut me down telling me that no one would enjoy it, and that I should pick a Hollywood movie to watch instead. After that comment, I stopped watching Bollywood movies all together, losing a hobby that I used to enjoy with my family all the time. When I went to school one day with coconut oil in my hair, one classmate told me that I was greasy and needed a shower. I stopped asking for coconut oil head massages after this incident. My hair will never forgive me.  

Ajna Chakra ACTIVATED

Ajna Chakra ACTIVATED

Other than the fact that all of the things I was teased for are now ‘cool’ and ‘trendy’ (henna, foreign films, and coconut oil), these incidents have two other things in common. First of all, I don’t think any of these comments were fueled by hate. They were fueled by ignorance, fear, and a maybe even a little bit of curiosity in disguise. I don’t think any of the people who made these comments realized that they would still affect me 10, 15 years later. Secondly, these comments made me dig myself deeper and deeper into the hole that I had created for myself.  In this hole, I stored aspects of my South-Asian culture that I felt needed to be hidden. I felt unsafe bringing my culture out of that hole. It would mean risking being made fun of for the person that I was, being made fun of for my existence.

Today, I am taking one step out of that hole. I am doing that by wearing my pottu. Although I do feel a little bit nervous, I feel confident. I feel confident in my culture, in my customs, in my religion, in my traditions. I feel proud of all of these things, and nothing feels better than overcoming this fear, a fear created by colonization and western beauty standards. I am prepared to educate those who feel the need to make fun of me for wearing my pottu. Instead of viewing it as hate, I am using it as an opportunity to teach people why I wear my pottu, and what it stands for. 

Stuntin’ on the haterz

Stuntin’ on the haterz

I wear my pottu because when I was a kid, I had a treasure trove of pottus, each set unique, full of different designs and colors. I loved picking which one I would wear - Did I want to flex on them or keep it casual? I am realizing how much I miss that - expressing myself with my pottu. I recently came back from a trip to India where I was wearing a pottu routinely, everyday. I felt foreign when I forgot to put one on. It felt normal to me. Why did I feel like I had to change my beauty routine, just because I was in a different country? After asking myself this question, I realized that it was time to work on merging both my South Asian and American identities. I needed to work towards finding a cultural balance that worked for me. I feel a little strange, but I am excited for the next stage in my identity journey. I know that each day I wear my pottu, I will feel stronger and prouder of my cultural diversity.

If you are thinking about wearing a pottu at the next hottest music festival (FYRE amirite?), hopefully you will try to understand the cultural and personal significance of a pottu. You can do this by asking your pottu-wearing friends, your aunties, me, why we wear our pottus. Hopefully, you will realize that wearing a pottu as someone who has never felt ashamed of their culture is a privilege. For some people like me, it is not something that can be thrown away right after a music festival.

Pottu queens

Pottu queens

Why do you wear your pottu? How do you balance your cultural identities? Questions or comments? Please share!

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