Reconciling growing up with an ethnic name

I am on the floor, making snow angels on the fluffy carpet. The girls around me chatter in a semi-circle around the fishbowl screen of the pink television.

We are watching “Hannah Montana” at a birthday sleepover, and I am nine years old.

“If you could change your name, what would you change it to?” I asked. I already had an answer in mind, though.

What I did not expect was the confusion, as though they had never considered
the question before.

Hannah Montana sang to a silent crowd.

“Probably nothing, I already like my name,” Jenna, the birthday girl, finally said. Everyone else echoed agreement. I went back to making snow angels.

I did not feel at home in my name — nor in my own skin — until I was much older.

It is a unique struggle; most people of color have the universal experience of wearing their ethnicity on their sleeve. It is not often something you can hide.

However, not all people of color have ethnic names. Many have Anglicized names from birth, or choose “American names” during immigration or assimilation processes. It is the easiest cultural relic to hand over. You cannot change the way you look, so changing the way you are called — the foundation of the way others perceive you — goes first.

Having an ethnic name also does not equate to the severity of prejudice faced.

Many people with Anglicized names have deeper and much longer roots of oppression in this country; their names, identities and culture are snatched away much earlier than any of their family can remember.

I struggle with the balance of recognizing my pain and trivializing it at the same time.

I still find it so hard to accept, though. My parents are first generation immigrants from India, and I visited their home many times. My grandparents are still there, a living hearth where I still do not belong. As a member of a diaspora, it is already hard to feel ownership of any facet of your identity — with no real or tangible ties to land, culture or tradition.

Nothing is really mine. Sometimes my name is the only thing left to remind me where I come from, and a childhood spent running from it is so painful to remember.

Growing up with butchered roll calls and having to make the choice at a young age whether or not to police people on the simplest and most critical part of your identity, you shed what little ownership you have left.

You have to decide whether your name, in all its vastness and brevity, is worth the inconvenience.

There are many ways we fold — giving fake names at restaurants, getting too tired of correcting the mispronunciations or nicknaming yourself to the point where there is nothing left.

My little brother has given up in this way. Even between siblings, something has been lost.

In just a few years, my roots have dug just a little deeper than his.

There is still comfort in that we are not alone; learning to love yourself is a rite of passage we already all take in many forms, no matter where we come from.

We learn to love our features, language and culture in baby steps. The environment and culture around me shifted as I grew, to the point where I cannot even imagine being called anything else.

It is a privilege to have growing pains — to be able to look back and see change.