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  • Jyoti Grewal

What's in a name?

Last Friday, I took my mom to the doctor’s office. When checking in, the receptionist asked my name so she could add it to my mom’s file. I had to repeat my name ‘Jyoti’ three times while she frowned trying to wrap her head around it. A few moments later, she noticed my daughter in the waiting room. She then asked me what her name was. When I said ‘Shubhdarsh’, she laughed and said that she would need reminders each time we came in as she had never seen such unusual names before.

This is an all too familiar occurrence for my daughter and I. We have to repeat and dumb down our names for the convenience of the Anglo-Saxon tongue. I wonder how the receptionist would have felt had I scoffed and told her ‘Kathy’ was an unusual name. Would she have felt shame? Embarrassment? A sense of abnormality?

Throughout my schooling, I remember the anxiety every new teacher or class caused. I would wait for the awkward hesitation and discomfort the teacher felt when they approached my name on the attendance list. How many times did I want the earth to open up and swallow me when their awkward attempts would cause giggles in the classroom? What made things worse was the back and forth of their attempts to pronounce my name and almost always give up. Then, came the request for a nickname. This is how ‘Jyoti’ morphed into ‘Jody’.

Fast forward a couple of decades and my daughter now faces the same thing. So why would I put my child through the same torment I went through? I toyed around with naming her ‘Katrina’ for a while. My heart kept going back to a name that will never leave my soul – my father’s name ‘Darshan’. I wanted to embed in my life the man who was murdered fighting for his life and family in the religiously fueled war of 1984 in India. I wanted to name my first born after him so his legacy continues. I named her so the 5-year-old that lost her father could keep a part of him with her forever. Picking an easy name for the sake of society was not an option. Remembering the sacrifice of my father was much more important. Every time I see my daughter’s name on paper, I feel a sense of joy, pride and honor. As for my daughter, she is learning to navigate her way through society. She has days where she can let others make her feel embarrassed about who she is. She also has days where she gets a chance to tell someone the proud story of her grandfather.

As for me, I learned this skill a little too late in the game. It wasn’t until I became an adult and started my first real job working at an immigrant serving agency that I really started to own my name. I saw the pride my immigrant clients felt explaining the meaning behind their unique names. I no longer wanted to hide in a crowd of ‘Jodies’. I too wanted to stand out like the meaning behind my name – ‘light’. Light is not meant to be hidden. It felt good to have my own name on my business card. I no longer felt like a fraud and an outsider to my own self.

I have now spent almost two decades teaching immigrant students who have interesting names. I always make it a point to acknowledge their unique names and ask for help with pronunciation. I love seeing the joy in their eyes when their name doesn’t get a wince but a smile. My most recent experience was a student named ‘Tsehaynesh’ who asked me to call her ‘Hannah’ because it would be easy for me. I told her it’s not her job to make it easy for me but my job to honor the most important part of her – her identity. She smiled and pronounced her name, adding that it meant ‘you are the sun’.

The next time you see a name that is unique, note not weird or unusual, but unique, I hope that you stop and think of my story. I hope you approach the issue with curiosity and an open mind rather than get lost in the minute of inconvenience it might cause you to learn that name. I hope you stop and consider the next few words to leave your lips. I hope you make them words of warmth and acceptance so that the person in front of you feels comfortable to be who they are. I hope you remember that your actions matter.

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