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How Mispronouncing My Name Minimizes My Identity

Kushal Sahabir

November 21st, 2020


Recently, scrolling through YouTube to procrastinate work—as you will often find me doin—I came across a Vanity Fair interview with Hasan Minhaj. For every South Asian GenZer, Hasan Minhaj is a beacon of light in an industry where South Asian actors or entertainers aren’t exactly the most prevalent.  Minhaj is a first generation American, and if you’ve ever seen him, you’d know he’s good at his job. He’s a comedian by habit, but he knows how to incorporate current events and difficult conversations into his content, using humor to ask serious questions, which is illustrated by his show on Netflix, Patriot Act. So naturally, I was drawn to the interview. I right-clicked and queued up the video, its small box lining up amongst cricket matches and random comedy bits. Yet I didn’t realize the video was about to change the way I looked at myself.

Reflecting on his identity in the interview, Hasan brings up a history of people pronouncing his name incorrectly. He wishes he could go back and make them pronounce his name correctly, he says. To some people, a name might not sound like much—everyone’s name is mispronounced by someone, so why is it such a big deal to some? After all, what’s in a name? What does a name even mean, and why does it even matter? Does it even matter? According to Hasan, his name represents more than what people call him; it’s his identity, who he is, how he defines himself, all in two small syllables. His perspective challenged the way I thought about myself and my identity.

All my life, I’ve weathered mispronunciations of my name from the people I meet. Even people I’ve known for years still don’t pronounce my name correctly. So commonplace, mispronunciations have become events that I shrug off. Such a pattern isn’t uncommon for people who don’t have typical Anglo-Saxon names; it’s almost a regular element of our lives. It becomes even more of a struggle for Asian people, because our native languages are nothing like English; phonetics and vocabulary divide us culturally from typical Western culture—and names reflect that divide. With my two-syllabled name, “Kushal,” I’m better off than most; but the Anglicized pronunciation is still noticeably different from the Hindi one. Experiencing convoluted pronunciations of my name my whole life, I’ve gotten used to them. In some cases, when I introduce myself now, I automatically say the version of my name that everyone is used to hearing—even though it isn’t correct. And in some ways, the Anglicized iteration of my name has felt like just that—another way to refer to me. But Hasan made me question the impacts that the convolution of my name may have on the way I see and own myself. Some people may change their names, or adopt nicknames readily, but names can also carry immense meaning to those who they embody.

To me, names represent our one universal reference point to who we are; the one thing that can wholly define our lives and how we choose to live it. And so, in sacrificing the correct usage of our name, we sacrifice our identity, too. We say that it is fine to mispronounce our names, but in doing so, we lose agency over identity, blurring what our identity is and what it becomes. In no way am I shaming people who allow mispronunciations or use a specific nickname instead of their own name; in fact, I often offer a nickname as opposed to my own. I’m also not saying that it is wrong to mispronounce someone’s name the first time you meet them; there will always be cultural divides. But our names are what we make of them; often, they are our identity, whatever that means.

So use that nickname, change your name to whatever your heart desires, or even use your birth name. But don’t ever let another person tell you what your name should be. Because at the end of the day, your name can be the culmination of your whole life, just as quickly as it can be convoluted by a passerby who doesn’t care enough to pronounce it correctly. Only we decide what our names are and what they mean, but when we define that, don’t let anyone compromise it. Only we decide what’s in our name.

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