A name defines us. Not in the sense that it illustrates your hair, gender preference, race and other features that outwardly differentiates us, but rather as an identifier. From the day we are named we are given an identity that the rest of the world uses to distinguish us from everyone else. An identifier that creates an impression of us before we can even introduce ourselves. The way we treat our names can influence the way we think about ourselves, and how we expect others to treat us.
My mother tongue is Bengali, one of the most common Indian languages and also the 8th most spoken language in the world. My name is a Sanskrit word, an ancient language that bears the roots of many languages in the Indic and Indo-European language families, including Bengali and Hindi. The bengali language, although has a lot of similar words to hindi, and shares a similar sound, is very different from its linguistic colleague. The pronunciation of certain critical vowels are very different between the two languages. My name contains one of these critical vowels that simply does not exist in Hindi, but very common in Bengali.
When I was in primary school, I took second language Hindi as one of my language classes. I always wanted to learn hindi because I loved watching Bollywood movies, a lot of my friends were hindi speaking, and it is one of the world’s most spoken languages. I remember in the first few classes when we were learning to write our names in hindi, our teachers asked us to introduce ourselves. When I stood up to say my name the way my parents taught me to, my teacher automatically, without a thought, corrected my pronunciation to use the hindi vowel. I didn’t understand the correction, I thought she simply misheard my name, so I repeated it. She corrected me once again, making it clear this time that how I said my name was wrong. I didn’t really think much of it at the time. Sure, I was a little confused why my parents said it one way and why my teacher said it another way, but I didn’t really feel anything about it. I just shrugged it off. She then taught us to write our names in hindi letters. She taught me to write mine in a way that completely excluded that vowel sound. I didn’t know any better. I didn’t know the effect it would have on how I perceived not only my name, but my language as well.
When I came home and showed my parents what I learnt, they were confused and shocked. They then taught me how to include the vowel sound into the alphabets that made up my name in hindi. But I whined and said no, this is not how my teacher taught it. They made it clear that the teacher doesn’t know my name, doesn’t know its roots, doesn’t know the pronunciation, so how could she be more correct. But I refused to listen. You see, what happened in the span of those couple days, my teachers, my friends and fellow students, and all of their parents, all would call me by the hindi pronunciation simply because it was more accessible to them. Apart from my parents, and their bengali friends saying my name, I would only ever hear the hindi pronunciation. And just like anything else in life, the more we see and hear something, the more we believe it to be true.
I am a third culture kid. “Third culture kids are individuals who are (or were as children) raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years” (D.C. Pollock, & R.E. Van Reken, 2009). I was born in India, but raised in Singapore, shifting between schools of different cultural and education systems throughout my life.
By middle school, I changed to a different school, an international school. A school where I was introduced to teachers and friends from all over the world. People that have lived in multiple countries, spoke multiple languages, and have experienced so much more than I could have ever imagined at my age.
My teachers during attendance often mispronounced my name the first time they would call attendance, but they were very considerate of wanting to know the correct way to pronounce it from the student and try their best to maintain that. This was my chance. This was the perfect opportunity to teach them my authentic, bengali pronunciation, the name that my parents so proudly gave me. But I said it the way I was taught in primary school by my teacher. I said it the way everyone else said it rather than the way my parents said it. By this point in my life, I was so used to hearing it that one way that hearing it any other way sounded strange and unfamiliar. My parents too at this point became comfortable with that pronunciation. They weren’t uncomfortable or disappointed, but rather simply more used to hearing it. They too became used to my friends’ parents calling me that way, and if they used the correct way of pronouncing, oftentimes they wouldn’t understand who they were referring to.
As I got older, I started reflecting back on these experiences. My relationship with my language has been a little complicated. It was a relationship I always thought of as mandatory rather than enriching, an inconvenience rather than a celebration. I took it for granted. I expected it to wait for me when I got home, to comfort me when I was upset, to make me laugh, to teach me lessons, and to give me another outlet for self expression. But I never returned the favour. I never wanted to show it off to my friends because I didn’t want to be the odd one out of the group, I didn’t want to make myself seem too prideful for thinking my way was better and more truthful than the way everyone else said it.
What I realised later on in highschool was that my teachers’ constant reinforcement of the mispronunciation of my name as the outright correct way of saying my name changed my entire outlook of how I saw myself and my language. It wasn’t completely the teacher’s fault, she taught what she was raised to think as correct and what in her world is the correct way to say a word, after all, her job was to teach hindi. It wasn’t my friends fault for calling me that, and neither was it my fault for believing that to be the better way for pronouncing it, because I couldn’t have known better. However, the constant reinforcement of what about my life is correct and what is wrong changed how I viewed other features of myself.
If the most basic device used to identify me and distinguish me from others is an issue of complication and debate, how could other parts of me that are used to define me not be questionable either? Of course, this isn’t the only thing that led to me questioning other aspects of myself, it is only one of several factors. And it is also not an isolated issue that is only applicable to me, it’s an issue that many third culture children and multilingual people in general go through.
After a lot of self reflection over the last few years, my relationship with my language has grown stronger. It’s become a relationship that is supportive rather than divisive, uplifting rather than diminishing, and insightful rather than regretful. It has taught me so much more about the history behind my culture, the cultures that have grown and modernised to the celebrations we perform today. It has fulfilled my insecurities about my relationship with other languages I have learnt and taught me to view every language as entities that have enriched my perception of the world. It has allowed me to become a partner that shares its values and importance, that utilises its differences from others as an outlet of self expression and growth. It has become a relationship of love rather than indifference. An unexpected parallel life has made itself evident whereby the meaning of my name in sanskrit, has become the embodiment of my life. And with that, my name for me has become one that is powerful and meaningful, a word whose etymology correlates with the experiences of my life, where my name has become the word that defines who I am, what I represent and offer to this world.
Here is a short video by VOX that was recommended to me by a dear friend recently. It covers this topic in a much more detailed manner.