The Art of nickname

Posted: August 4, 2011 in Uncategorized
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To most people I encounter, I have a wonderfully (or not so wonderfully) difficult ethnic name. For those of you who’ve never heard (of) my name and don’t know how to say it, it sounds something like this: Sa ‘roo ja nee. Got it? Maybe? Take your time, practice a little, I’ll wait.

It’s virtually unheard of here and that makes me appreciate it so much more. My parents named me after the famed Indian poet and political activist (and incidentally, a compatriot of Gandhi’s) Sarojini Naidu. While that makes it an incredibly hard name to live up to, I still love it and say it as often as I can say it (Is this asiago cheese? Oh, that reminds me of my name Saroooojini), without coming off as a complete asshole. I don’t speak Hindi unfortunately, but I’ve been told Sarojini can mean a few different things: of the forest, or of nature, or my favorite, from the dirt grows the beauty of the lotus. Yeah, beat that, Jennifer. (I have nothing against anyone named Jennifer. In fact, I’m envious because I’m sure all Jennifers lead much less complicated phonetic lives than I do. Furthermore, I’m ABSOLUTELY sure not one Jennifer on planet earth has ever been stopped by someone who demands she explain what her name means in minute detail. “Jennifer, huh? What does that mean? Does it have a meaning?” You’ll never hear that conversation. Ever.)

Where’s Sarojini?

Most people, upon seeing or hearing Sarojini for the first time inevitably throw their hands up in fear and say, “Your name is what?” They back away, as if to say, I don’t want any trouble here. Some people are slightly more diplomatic and instead say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t hear you.” They try to repeat the same sounds that came out of my mouth, this time displacing, replacing and deleting vowels and consonants like it’s nobody’s business. “Sigourney? Serengeti? Sasquatch? Sa..sa…sa..” It’s like their brains get scrambled and short circuit and they no longer know how to speak any form of human language. The ability to control the movements of their tongue and lips get relegated to a small part of the ancestral primordial ooze that still hides deep in the recesses of the mind. Right before my eyes, intelligent adults turn into single-celled organisms faced with two choices: slither away or evolve.

I try to simplify my name and say the four syllables very slowly and then let it sink in a bit. They nod their heads slowly in agreement. Not so bad, right? They nod some more. I make elaborate, yet soothing hand gestures like I’m conducting a mildly schizophrenic cat symphony (Shh…take it easy) and continue repeating the unfamiliar sounds, making sure to emphasize the softness of the ‘j’ in the ‘ja’ sound. I often give positive feedback (Good try. You can do this! You went to college!) to help with the process. After several attempts, most people get it. The others? The conversation usually goes something like this:

“Um, Sirachi?”

“Uh, no. It’s Sarojini.”

“Sa what?”

“Sa rooooo ja neeeee.”

“What?”

“SAH. ROO. JAH. NEE.”

“Oh.”Several moments pass. “Do you have a nickname?”

A heavy sigh of anguish escapes my throat.

“Call me Suzi,” I whisper, as I hang my head in embarrassment.

Yes, it’s true. For most of my life, everyone has called me Suzi. My parents, my sisters, my friends… everyone. My parents swear they don’t know the origins of this nickname (“I dunno…someone just started calling you Suzi”) but I’m sure they’ve got something to do with it because no one in my family has ever used Sarojini. I couldn’t even spell Sarojini until I was in the second grade (Thanks Mrs. Biederman!). As long as I can remember, I’ve been Suzi.

And while I still genuinely like being called Suzi because it feels familiar, safe and well, easy, these days I much prefer my given name because it feels real, like the real me. I started using it more and more in my late twenties and it felt good to hear it come out of my mouth, and not just see it occasionally on my passport or ConEd bill. I eventually grew attached to it and soon enough, saying, “My name is Sarojini” became as easy as saying, “My name is Suzi.” I own it now. This is me.

I know what you’re thinking: Why did you even have a nickname? I have tons of friends with ethnic names and it’s totally cool! Well, I grew up during a particular time in our history in the late 70’s, early 80’s, when children of immigrants were raised to assimilate as quickly as possible, not stand out or be different. Immigrant parents didn’t want any added difficulties for their children in a very Anglo-Saxon society and ethnic names were viewed as a hindrance to their success, not an asset. We didn’t hold hands and celebrate our differences in the 70’s. The result? Beautiful, culturally-indigenous names like Dao-ming, Vaishali and Bihai became easy-to-say American names like Debbie, Vicki and Beth. They became approachable, likable and conformist. Non-threatening. Just like you.

This practice is, thankfully, dying out, but it hasn’t completely disappeared. Listen, it’s hard to give a phonetics lesson every single time you meet someone new. Some people with not-so-easy to say names choose an alternative. If I’m not in the mood to have a ten-minute conversation about my name, you better believe I’m going to introduce myself as Suzi. I know folks without ethnic names often wonder why someone with an ethnic name would want to deny their heritage and take on a false identity, especially in this day and age. Wear your culture as a badge! It’s a post-racial society, right?! Uh, no. It isn’t, actually. More importantly, that isn’t the point. If everyone wants you to use your nickname because they can’t be bothered with the effort to say a name with more than two syllables, you eventually oblige. Sporadically, I still employ the use of my nickname and for good reason and even that gets shortened to Sooz. And besides, I can say from experience that it’s not about denying who we are or trying to be someone else. I’m sure you’ve heard some obnoxious person say, “I know that Chinese guy’s name isn’t Peter. Come on!” What those obnoxious people don’t get is that Peter didn’t change his name for his own sake; he knows how to say his name. He changed it for your sake. Now fuck off, John. (I have nothing against anyone named John, I swear. In fact…)

So, the next time you’re wondering why the Korean gentleman at the coffee shop – who barely speaks English – goes by the name of Sam, wonder no more.

*Indian is a widely accepted generic term used in the United States – and not readily used elsewhere- to describe a very large, ambiguous ethnic group and is surely part of our lexicon, but I don’t prefer this ethnic description anymore than Asians prefer Oriental. Indian can be used as a description as one’s nationality, perhaps, but it is not an ethnicity or race. Do I use it? Sure. But only with Americans. So, go ahead and use it with care. One caveat: If you call me Indian Girl, I will lose my damn mind. And not in a good way.

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