Why it matters to me that people learn how to say my name
About two months ago, as I was coming home, I saw my neighbor outside and we got to talking. After a while, she asked me what my name was, and I told her: it’s Nipuni. As a Sri Lankan with a Sri Lankan name living in Canada, I’ve come to regard the simple act of introducing myself to a random stranger with mild trepidation, mostly because I’ve noticed somewhat of a pattern—a pattern that I’m not terribly comfortable with.
But there wasn’t a whole lot I could do about it, and I was hopeful that, if it’s only mild trepidation that I have to deal with right now, then there was a good chance that a few more years of desensitization would make me downright apathetic.
And then someone broke the pattern. And apathy flew out the window.
First of all, let me introduce you to the pattern: someone asks me my name, I say it, and then they ask me to repeat it. At this point, prior experience kicks in and and before going further, I take the opportunity to do a detailed assessment in my head of how likely it is that I am to see this particular individual again. Depending on the results, I take the time to correct them if they get my name wrong. (Because, let’s face it, if there’s even a slight chance of them never seeing me again, I might as well save us both a lesson in “How to Say My Name Right” and just be on my way.)
It’s a nice little song and dance, really. Given enough time, you might even turn it into an art form, and come to anticipate the other person’s response before they even ask. At which point, you do them the favor of getting right down to it: immediately say your name, repeat it twice, say it again, this time mind-numbingly slow, syllables and all, and you’ve saved precious seconds in both you and the random stranger’s lives.
My name isn’t even that hard to pronounce, at least as far as Sri Lankan names go. Russell Peters had it right when he said that if you were to see a Sri Lankan with a name tag on, the tag would have a high likelihood of extending all the way to his back—it’s bound to be that long. And my last name is that long. But as far as first names go, mine is pretty simple to say.
I’m not even the kind of person who minds if you do pronounce it wrong. The variables you can come up with to my name, even accidentally, are pretty damn low anyway. But this particular lady, my neighbor, didn’t even attempt to say it. She asked me for my name, then waited expectantly, with this irritatingly bored expression on her face that said, “Oh whatever’s gonna come out of her mouth is gonna be hard for me to pronounce anyway, so why even bother?” But what really irked me was the reflexive answer she had at the ready. I said my name, and she automatically came back with, “Do you have another name?”
Which translated, roughly, to: “Do-you-have-another-name-that’ll-be-easier-for-me-to-pronounce because-your-name-is-just-too-friggin’-exotic-and-bound-to-have-too many-syllables-that’ll-make-my-poor-tongue-trip-over-itself-in-the-attempt-to say-it.”
She didn’t even listen to my name. It never even stood a chance in the face of her abrupt dismissal. How do you think that made me feel?
To repeat a word from the above sentence: dismissed. It made me feel dismissed.
And right at that moment, when it happened, it kind of took me aback, and I had to stop and think for a minute. This was new, I thought. This wasn’t the usual awkward jazz number I’m used to performing with total strangers who want to know my name, but this was a whole new level of awkward. The lady blinked at me, I blinked at the lady, and my mind chose that moment to get sassy with me, with the words “NO, lady, I actually DON’T have another name. So why don’t you go right on ahead, pull up your pants, and learn how to say my name!” flashing across, goading me to say it out loud.
The lady’s expectant, unblinking expression did not waver. The nerve, I thought. I mean, not that I didn’t have another name. I did. One that was even more Sri Lankan than the first one. This one really might get her tongue tied—which, at the moment, I have to say I wouldn’t have minded very much at all. But I knew better.
And this is the ironic part: here I was, worrying about whether or not my actions may or may not offend this lady, when she had already offended me, seemingly with no conscience whatsoever.
After a couple of excruciating minutes during which my mind scrambled to find this “other” name that I was supposed to have, I finally told her to call me Nikki. She gave a brisk nod and, ridiculously enough, repeated it back to me as if she was seeking my approval—which was redundant at that point because my approval no longer belonged to me; everything that had had taken place, had taken place on her terms. It reminded me of the “Orange Is The New Black” actress Uzo Aduba, who asked her mother whether she should change her name because people found it too hard to pronounce. Her mother’s response: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” As well they should.
So I’m putting my foot down. You can say my name any way you want. Butcher it, for all I care. You’ll eventually get it. And if you really can’t, then I would at least know you tried and would sincerely appreciate the effort.
To me, someone living away from home, my name is my identity. It carries with it a legacy. It points to where I am from; it is a symbol of my nationality. To ask me to assume another name, merely for your convenience, is insulting. Now, it might not be for many people. Some might even voluntarily offer a more Westernized name just so they do not have to bother repeating it until someone gets it right. That’s fine: to each his own. But please, if they do not offer it, do not ask for another name and just try—because saying it wrong is less offensive than asking them to change it altogether.
Nipuni Panamaldeniya was born and raised in Sri Lanka, and now lives in Canada. She always feels like she’s carrying around a piece of Sri Lanka with her, so she recently started a blog to post her viewpoints and stories from a Sri Lankan perspective, called A Little Slice of Sri Lanka. A version of this story first appeared there. She has a separate blog for everything else that inspires and interests here, such as social justice, feminist issues, arts, and culture, available here, where she also posts links to her fanfiction. (She’s a huge Jackson and April fan from Grey’s Anatomy, and loves writing fanfic for them!)