“What’s in a name” is a quarter-long project by NBN Opinion in which individual writers explore the personal significance of a name.
I lived in the U.S. until I was nine, before my parents, who were South Indian immigrants, decided to relocate back to South India a few years after my younger sister was born. People often ask me if it was a difficult transition, but I don’t remember it being so. Many of my new classmates and neighbors were, like me, children of returned Indian expats, mostly from America but some from Europe and Southeast Asia. Anecdotally at least, I can say that in the early 2010s where I grew up, being the immigrant child of immigrants was in vogue. Having a foreign accent was a source of pride. We were disgustingly cocky about our English fluency. I remember being told that I had the strongest foreign accent of all my classmates, and being strangely flattered by it. Middle school insults included accusing people of faking an accent for attention.
Meanwhile, I picked and chose pieces of my culture to latch on to and parts to discard. I was told when I was young that my name meant music in Sanskrit (many Indian names have Sanskrit origins and meanings), and that was something I liked to tell people. I wasn’t interested in learning Tamil, my native language, any longer than I had to – I begged to switch over to French (an academic burden I bear to this day). I liked playing Carnatic music, an Indian classical art form, on the violin, and I liked reading and hearing stories from Hindu mythology. But I did not like to wear traditional clothing or eat South Indian food. I told people I was from America, something they already knew as a result of an accent that my neighbor called, loosely translated, “slippery English.” The aim from the age of 10 for me and my friends was to “go back for college.”
Until I was at least 14, I was very uncomfortable speaking Tamil and avoided it as much as possible. I still can’t read or write it, but I think I began to identify more strongly with being South Indian through language and through speaking to my grandparents in my native tongue. It took at least a year for it to become a source of comfort. I don’t know exactly how to describe what it is to speak in your own tongue after a lifetime of trying for fluency in the language of colonization. Speaking in Tamil feels frank. My humor is more sincere than the sardonic way I speak in English. Tamil is reserved for family and people who are like family – people who I can only talk to in Tamil begin to feel like family too.
It is impossible not to think about how easily I could have maintained a disconnect, like if I hadn’t been shy and more willing to talk to my grandparents than to go outside, or if we hadn’t moved back to India at all. The stereotype of the disconnected second generation immigrant is pervasive in South Asian contemporary writing, and I’ve met people who pronounce their names (knowingly or not) in a way that is easier for an American accent, or homogenize Indian culture into one big soup that often ignores diversity of religion, language, culture, food – often excluding people from the South and the East, or social issues and inequalities.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in those situations. A connection to culture feels tenuous, like a work in progress, and I remember when it wasn’t there. I don’t know how I can fault people for doing what I could be doing now, and have definitely done in the past. I’m not sure if people mispronouncing my name is racist, or just annoying, or just ignorant. Hell, I can’t pronounce my name perfectly either – ironically, I roll my R’s too much, like an American. I don’t know how culture is propagated, because it’s impossible to put my finger on what it is. It could be anything – music, clothing, food, stories – comfort learned and imbibed through endless conversation.
Last year, I read another definition for my name. Shruti: “something learned through hearing.