May 2, 2021 ☞ PSA
Before my first day of school my mother asked me if I wanted to use a different, more Anglicized name. My cousin, Rajat, had started school a few years before me and started Kindergarten as “Robin.” My mom translated Sandhya into “Sandy” at the office.
It’s common for immigrants and their families to choose alternative Western names. I’m not sure how, but South and East Asian families have a knack for finding dust-covered beauties like Robin, Jasper, Bernice, or Vernon that haven’t been in use since 1965. Do they give you a book when you enter the country or something?
My mom suggested “Victor.” It sounded like an old man’s name. I didn’t like it, but it was the only one she offered. So I marched into Kindergarten armed with विवेक and a He-Man lunchbox.
Even though I introduced myself as विवेक, what I heard back was VEE•VECK or VEE•VACK. I never corrected anyone and I didn’t know I was supposed to.
By middle and high school my name evolved into a jaunty iamb: vi•VECK. I would still introduce myself the same way, but learned to expect an unfamiliar echo every time I did.
My mother wanted two kids: a boy and a girl, in that order, with the first initials V and N respectively. She got what she wanted.
The name my mom chose for me was विवेक (or Vivek in English). It means intelligence or wisdom—a remarkably prescient choice, if I do say so myself. The most famous person with this name is the Swami Vivekananda who introduced Hinduism to Europe and the United States. Other noteworthy folks with this name:
It’s a common enough name, but I wouldn’t say it’s popular. It’s no Amit or Sameer. Not as exalted as Ram, Krishna, or Shiva. I could probably list a dozen people named Anil in my own family, but I’ve only ever met a few people named विवेक. According to forebears.io, विवेक has a naming frequency of 1 in 2,831 births, on par with a name like “Vernon.”
On my first week of university, I meet a nice guy named Jeff who calls me V, which I dig. By this time, I’m no longer introducing myself as विवेक. There are too many people to meet, they’re usually drunk, and it’s not worth the hassle. I go by whatever people call me. On my student exchange in Rotterdam, I hear my name in 50 different accents. The Spanish bi•BAKE is my favorite.
When I join the work force, I create a mnemonic to make it easier for the people I meet. The English word “mistake” has similar vowel sounds (though not exactly the same) to the ones in my name. I introduce myself as “विवेक like mistake.” Like an advertising slogan.
Despite my efforts, विवेक morphs into VEE•VAKE. A lot of my first job is on the phone, so I’m introducing myself with “This is विवेक calling.” Because of something called rebracketing, the people on the other end of the phone start to hear, “This is Vivé calling.” vi•VAY is not my favorite.
You learn a lot when you repeat something thousands of times. While “विवेक like mistake” is phonetically useful, it’s got a branding problem. Sure, it gets a laugh because of the unexpectedness of “mistake,” but the touch of self-deprecation is unintended. Every now and then my introduction is received with a piteous “aww.”
I don’t want to lead with “mistake.” It’s replacement is well-focus-grouped: “VIV•ick like civic.” This sparks recognition every time. The Honda Civic is one of North America’s best selling automobiles; even if this sounds nothing like my name, the brand association is top-drawer. Seeing “Vivic” on the occasional Starbucks cup is a small price to pay for ease-of-use.
As you can tell, I’ve thought a lot about my name, the perceptions and attitudes it generates in other people, and what it takes to get folks to say it a certain way.
When you have a name that’s hard to pronounce, introducing yourself isn’t just an exchange of information. It’s a sales pitch and negotiation. In a matter of moments you must pluck people out of their confusion, make a joke if you can, reassure them that ‘everything is fine,’ ‘yes, you can say it’ if you try, and ‘don’t worry I’m not offended’ if you get it wrong. If you don’t do this, your name (and by extension, you) becomes a thing that makes people feel uncomfortable.
If your name is the front door to your psyche, mine feels like a Norman Door that stops folks in their tracks. This stumble subconsciously sets the tone for every single interaction I’ve had with any stranger for the past four decades. I’ve never had a teacher, employer, or romantic partner ever pronounce my name correctly.
It can mess with your lunch too. While I was waiting for an order at a busy sandwich shop in Oakland, I saw an employee walk over to an order slip and silently inspect it, before looking around sheepishly and moving on to the next one. I immediately knew what happened. They were too nervous to shout my name out, so skipped my order. I walked to the counter to get the sandwich, and I could feel their embarrassment as they handed it to me. I was embarrassed too. Anyone with a challenging name has some version of this story.
Not everybody is intimidated by a hard-to-pronounce name. Some are elated by them. Every 17 introductions or so, a stranger will tell me how much they love my name:
I get what these folks are trying to do. They want to connect with another human by talking about something they haven’t seen before. They’re turning my name into a friendly conversation starter.
For me, it’s a conversation killer. I don’t want to talk about my name. I’ve clunked it around for decades like a suitcase with broken wheels. I’ve used it 60,000 times; it’s not new, fun, or interesting to me, even if it were easy to say. It’s hard to accept the compliment, especially since it often devolves into full on Othering:
Vivek? That’s a lovely name. I love that. Where is that from? Oh, nice. I love Indian weddings, they’re so colorful. I want to go back to India. Do you get to go back a lot?
In those moments, I wonder what would happen if I tried complimenting a Western name the same way:
“Whoa, Beth… that’s so cool. Beeeeth. That’s really interesting.”
To me, it feels meaningless to accept a compliment about a label that you (typically) didn’t choose which has nothing to do with who you are. Ironically, the one way a name can affect your identity is if that name is hard to say or pronounce (See X Æ A-Xii Musk). In that case, a compliment can feel like drawing attention to the thing that makes someone feel marginalized. What’s interesting and “exotic” to one person might represent a life-long burden for the other.
I know the complimenters mean well. I always say thank you. But I can’t help that at this point in my life, “That’s a cool name” reaches my ears as “You’re different.”
Like most Indian parents, my parents use house names with their kids. Indian house names don’t make sense. Salman on the streets becomes “Chhotu” with family. Anushakshi goes by “Kushi” at home. Piyush becomes “Bobby.” My sister calls me “Brobot” and she’s the only one that gets to do that.
For nearly 40 years, I’ve worked to find ways to make my name more palatable for other people. What I’ve got in return is a long list of phonemes that don’t sound right. A few years ago, I decided that I want to like what I hear when people refer to me.
I started a new job and introduced myself in the Honda Civic way, but I had also written down “V” on some form, somewhere. When I talked to people I was self-effacing: “You can call me whatever.” But during my first week a coworker, Melissa, asked me earnestly: “What do you want to be called?” And she waited for my answer. I have never forgotten that. So many folks just want to quickly grab your handle so they can begin the beguine. She wanted to know who I was. I told her, “You can call me V.”
The next day I ordered a coffee on campus and introduced myself as such. When the barista handed me my cup, she had drawn a small cartoon hand holding up peace fingers, surrounded by a heart. I’ve gone by V ever since.
Everyone else: You can call me V. If your online form has a minimum character count for first name greater than 1 (and shame on you for this) use “Vee.” I’ve also seen coworkers use “Vi” and this intrigues me! (Topic for another essay.) If V still hurts your brain, pretend it’s 1965 when two letter names were all the rage: PJ, CJ, AJ, AC, etc. My name is simply one letter shorter than that. (Just don’t call me “Vern.”)
Not everyone is convinced. At a food truck here in Portland, Oregon, a server is downright incredulous about my introduction. She repeats it skeptically: “V? Like just V?” I hold up two fingers to confirm and smile hard through my mask. Swiping my credit card provides her with the other English letters of my name and a clear sense of relief, “Oh, VIV•eck! Now that’s not so hard!”
If you can, please donate to help the situation in India.