12 Mar 2015

A name shouldn't need an apology

8:52 am on 12 March 2015

Fitting in isn't so easy when you have to constantly apologise for the length and complexity of your name. It sometimes feels like apologising for existing. Story by Gaayathri Nair.

Listen to the story as it was told at The Watercooler storytelling night or read on ...

I was my parents’ first child, and I guess they really wanted to make sure I would have the best start in life. So when I was born they consulted a numerologist who informed them that in order for me to be successful in life I should have a name that began with a G and was also nine letters long.

Even amongst Indian names this severely limited their options so they ended up inserting an extra A into a very old-fashioned Hindu name, so that it would also confuse other Indians.  When trying to figure out how to say my name people often ask me how to spell it. I usually oblige, but it never really helps.

My family was part of one the first waves of post-gold rush migration to New Zealand from Asia in 1987-88 when the immigration laws liberalised to allow in people other than white/European migrants.

As a result I spent a lot of my early years being the only Indian kid in daycare/kindy/primary school.  It was then that I started to feel the burden of my name. It was so weird and long. It was something that marked me as ‘other’ before people even saw my face.

I think lots of immigrant kids relate to the awkward pause when the teacher comes to your name on the roll for the first time and stutters the first letter helplessly hoping the child will realise who they mean and help them out. I learnt to just put my hand up as soon as the pause happened so that I didn’t have to deal with any mispronunciations of my name that involved “gay trees”. 

I think I was about 11 when my hatred of my name hit a critical point and I decided that the second I turned 18 I would have it changed by deed poll to something more palatable to the masses. 

Lots of people have difficult names or confusing spellings, I don’t think my story is unique, there is just something about the abject horror that people have reacted with to the simple act of me telling them my name that is a little disconcerting. 

I think I was about 11 when my hatred of my name hit a critical point and I decided that the second I turned 18 I would have it changed by deed poll to something more palatable to the masses. I think Sarah was my top choice. It’s a nice safe name.  I knew five different Sarahs at the time so maybe it was a safety in numbers thing.

It was probably around this age that I also began to let people call me anything they wanted in an effort to be less difficult. As a result I acquired a host of nicknames including G3, G-Unit, Garfield, Guppy, Guyfry and Gaaya. Eventually most of these just became shortened to G. I always thought that it was my name that was the problem. If I could just change it then I would be more acceptable somehow, safer on some level. 

It is a little exhausting to constantly have to apologise for the length and complexity of my name, it sometimes feels like I am apologising for my existence.

You learn to pick your battles; for example using a fake names on the phone to order takeaways so I don’t have to spend an extra 10 minutes spelling it out and have someone ask where my name comes from and tell me how unusual it is.

Over time I have stopped letting people call me whatever they want. If they want to be my friend they can learn to say my name correctly just as I would for them. It’s really not that difficult and it makes me feel like a whole person. 

A couple of weeks ago I went to a birthday party and met someone for the first time. I introduced myself to this person and they responded with “what?!” So I said my name again and she asked me “Is there anything shorter I can call you?” my response was “not really.” It was so fucking liberating to just be like, ‘look this is my name, you don’t get to change it just because it is inconvenient for you. It is part of who I am.’

The gift and the curse of a migrant child is to be forever on the outside looking in.

Growing up as a migrant forever marks you as ‘other’; your name, the way you look, the food you eat, the clothes you sometimes wear. They all position you as an outsider - not a part of the norm. You are ‘other’ in the country where you live and because that country subsumes you and changes you, turning you into a product of itself, you are ‘other’ in your country of origin as well.

The gift and the curse of a migrant child is to be forever on the outside looking in. It is a gift because I think it helps to build compassion, empathy and understanding but it is a curse because you never really experience the comfort that I assume must come with being an insider. There is nowhere that people look at me and think, “you are from here, you belong.” 

It was funny, when I travelled around India for a while the first question any person would ask me was “Are you Indian?” Literally people would ride past me on motorbikes on the street yelling “You Indian aaaye?” The thought that would always cross my mind was “well, do you have a couple of hours free for a discussion on the nature of identity and what it means to be Indian? Probably not since you have already gone past me on your motorbike.”

I couldn’t answer with “I’m from New Zealand” because people wouldn’t believe me and it would result in way more time engaging with the subject than I wanted. I didn’t want to say “yes, I am Indian” because a whole host of expectations came with that as well as a lecture on forgetting my culture and my lack of ability to speak Hindi (never mind that Hindi language is not a part of my culture). I settled on just saying, “I’m Malaysian”. People would look at me wide eyed and say “oooh Malaysian, but you look Indian!”  To which I would respond “Yeah I get that all the time.”

It is the little things that mark us and my earliest memory of feeling like an outsider was when I was three-years-old in the daycare next to my house. I enjoyed the teachers and students, but the food was so strange to me. Carrots and other vegetables boiled to oblivion with barely any salt and certainly no spice. I hated the soggy mush, and refused to eat it. It was so alien compared to the rice dishes and curries I ate at home. I would watch the other children eating and wonder if there was something wrong with my tongue. It is a feeling that has never really left me.

I’m not sure if I truly identify as Malaysian or Indian anymore. What I really identify as is a migrant. A migrant to New Zealand even. In some ways that is a culture all of its own.

This story was originally told at The Watercooler, a monthly storytelling night held at The Basement Theatre. If you have a story to tell email thewatercoolernz@gmail.com or hit them up on Twitter or Facebook.

Illustration: Pinky Fang
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