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‘Skinny Girl With a Funny Name’? Kamala is Not the Only Indian Name That Gets Mangled

‘Skinny Girl With a Funny Name’? Kamala is Not the Only Indian Name That Gets Mangled

  • While a host of ethnic names are mispronounced by Anglo-European Americans, Indian names in particular can end up close to name calling.

As a candidate, Barack Obama, since his Chicago days, preempted the mispronunciation of his unusual name by describing himself as “skinny guy with a funny name.” It appears it’s Kamala Harris’ turn now with several top Republicans, including President Trump himself, deliberately mispronouncing her first name as a way of playing to the raucous galleries.

Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) faced criticism Friday night after appearing to mock and purposefully mangle Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris’ name at a campaign rally for President Donald Trump in Macon, Georgia.

Warming up the crowd, Perdue pandered to a laughing audience. “The most insidious thing that Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden are trying to perpetuate, and Bernie [Sanders] and Elizabeth [Warren] and Kamala — Kah-ma-la, or Kah-mah-la, or Kamala-mala-mala — I don’t know, whatever…”

Perdue has served in the Senate with Harris for more than three years. He also sits with Harris on the Budget Committee. The moment was immediately scrutinized online while Perdue’s spokespeople insisted it wasn’t intentional.  Harris’ spokesperson Sabrina Singh called the moment “incredibly racist.”

But this is nothing new.  Many South Asians are no strangers to their names being flubbed. The subject of many online and Late Night television parodies, the bungling of South Asian names is regular fare.  

Associate Professor of Chemical engineering at University of Illinois at Chicago says, “My first name Vivek gets mispronounced in many ways: Why-wake and Vi-vik as the two extremes. I tell people it’s pronounced as ‘we wake up in the morning’, without the ‘up in the morning, he says laughing, adding “My last name Sharma is often changed to Dharma or Sherman, and I am always ready to give a discourse on Hindu dharma as well as the American Civil War.”

King of faux-pas, President Donald Trump, during his recent visit to India to promote U.S.-India friendship, mangled with gusto nearly every Indian name he tried to pronounce, including his host city “Amabad” (Ahmedabad). Trump, addressing 100,000 Indians at a “Namaste Trump” rally at the Sardar Patel Stadium in Ahmedabad stumbled over names like Jiwala and Saaaardaaaar Paatail (Sardar Patel) to Indian cricket heartthrobs Suchin Tendulkuurrr (Sachin Tendulkar) and Virot Kolee (Virat Kohli) and the revered religious teacher Swami Vive…Kamundun (Vivekanandan). 

In North America, many names with origins outside Anglo-Christian cultures are often dismissed as “too difficult” or even “impossible” to pronounce. In turn, their names are left out of conversations, skipped over, or repeatedly mispronounced. 

To try and blend in, many Asians, particularly Chinese Americans, change their names. Constant mispronunciation may cause names to be a place of discomfort and embarrassment. In an attempt to make others more comfortable, taking on an “Americanized” name can also be a form of assimilation. 

One glaring example is that of Bobby Jindal. According to media reports, at age four, Piyush Jindal decided he wanted a different name. Enamored by the famous character on the Brady Bunch, Piyush decided it would be way cooler to be Bobby. “Bobby” Jindal, earned a degree in Political Science from Oxford University, served as the president of the University of Louisiana System and became the first Indian American Governor (of Louisiana) in the United States, all as Bobby. In 2008, when Piyush Jindal took the oath of office, he began: “I, Bobby Jindal…,” though his legal name has never changed.

Brookline, Massachusetts resident and Assistant Managing Editor, WBUR 90.0 FM, Tinku Ray says incredulously, “My first boss at the Beed (England, 1989) asked if they could call me Tina … I said sure, but I won’t respond as that’s not my name.

Brookline, Massachusetts resident and assistant managing editor, WBUR 90.0 FM, Tinku Ray says incredulously, “My first boss at the Beed (England, 1989) asked if they could call me Tina … I said sure, but I won’t respond as that’s not my name. Basically, my simple name was too foreign!”

However, Ray does point out that “There’s more effort these days to pronounce names properly so people actually bother to ask how to pronounce it or if they are saying it right.”

Says homemaker Sonia Sharma from Hillsborough, New Jersey, “My daughter’s name is Jiya. But here 90 percent of the people pronounce it as Jaya or Jiyaya. They have been told it’s pronounced as Gia.” High schooler, Jiya, who was named because her parents thought it would be easy to pronounce, is tired of correcting pronunciations. “It’s so irritating,” she adds.

Bharati Chowdhury (75), who flits between Kolkata, India and the U.S. visiting her sons in Texas and California says, “I have been called Baraati and the ‘bh’ sound is beyond most Westerners. I even has someone call me Baraatiti — now where the extra ‘ti’ came from, I have no idea.”

Srivathsa Yajaman, who owns a supply chain consulting business and who relocated to India recently says, “My name is mauled every time. The last straw was the airport pre-paid taxi counter — Sri Watson!”

Asks organic chemist and Ohio resident Shreyasi Lahiri, “Where do I even start?” adding, “There are so many variations, but usually I can recognize that it is my name. One year in college, the first day of math class, the professor started by doing an alphabetical roll call. I started preparing myself for a butchered version of my name as we go closer to the L’s. We got there, passed it and I didn’t hear any recognizable version of my name. Confused, because I knew I had registered, I went to her after class and sure enough there was my name, so completely butchered, even I didn’t recognize it. “

Many Indian Americans have what is known as their “Starbucks name.” “I am not ashamed of my heritage or upbringing, but it is much easier for the poor, overwhelmed barista to scream out “Latte for Natalie” rather than “for Noopur” — pronounced “nuu-poo-r”, though often mispronounced as New-poor, No-pour or Nu-pour,” says consultant Nupur Reddy.

Presenter/Commentator at ESPN Star Sports, Gautam Bhimani, who constantly travels abroad for work and pleasure says, “I spent five years in the Midwest near St. Louis, Missouri and introducing myself took forever. That is until I decided to make life simple and said, ‘ok guys, have you watched Batman? Yes? Where does he live? Gotham City….cool that’s my name…Gotham’.”

Bhimani adds with a chuckle, “Occasionally, I would be asked if I too hail from Gotham City. At that point, I would cease the conversation.”

Economics doctoral student Rohini Ghosh at University of Wyoming says, “The most random s#$%^ people have called me growing up is Ro-high-nee,” she says laughing. Ghosh, who grew up in North Carolina adds unbelievably, “Sometimes people call me Rohan (??), but most of the time people just won’t say my name. They just wait for me to do it.”

Executive coach and talent management consultant Shikha Bharucha, who moved back to Mumbai from Pittsburgh says laughingly, “I used to get Shakira…I really didn’t mind it!”

Her husband, Arish Bharucha, who was born and raised in Texas and now works as a VP for JP Morgan in Mumbai, India says, “I’ve had a lot of different interpretations of my name, but the most common was ‘Irish’.”

Laughs Radio Mirchi RJ from New Jersey, Neha Mahajan, “If I saved a dollar for every time I was called Neeeeeeeeeehaaaaaaa, I’d be rich right now!”

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Gastroenterologist at Emory Healthcare Tanvi Dhere adds, “I stopped pronouncing my name the way it should be in first grade when I moved to the states. My teacher called me Tan-vee. It stuck with me until high school when a teacher of mine said ‘you are more of a Tawn-vee, less of a southern drawl.”

Dhere adds, “When I get people to learn how to easily pronounce my name and hear them pronounce it, and still mess it up…I give up. And don’t get me started on my last name….”she trails off.

Georgia artist Malika Ghosh Garrett says “My biggest pet peeve is Maleeka. It makes my blood boil. There’s Malaika, Monika, Mallika, it goes on and on. I basically have to tell them my name is pronounced Monika but stick an L in it!” Durhmadding with a shrug, “That makes it easy for them somehow.”

Garrett, a mother of two, further adds, “I spelled my daughter’s name Aalia so people here wouldn’t mispronounce it as Aaliyah, which they still do — they say AHLEeYAH!”

Public defender from Durham North Carolina, and mother of two, who is married to a second generation Indian American says, “We tried to give the kids names white Americans (read: my family) could pronounce. When he introduces himself to other kids, they always think Ravi is Robbie. Older white Americans have at least heard of Ravi Shanker! People who have only read her name will sometimes call my daughter Anjali, “An-Jolly!”

The issue with Indian names goes beyond the pronunciations. It is one thing to have your name mispronounced; it is another thing when the mispronunciation makes a perfectly normal, even noble Indian name sound dirty. Take, for example, Hardik. Due to the inability of the American accent to pronounce the soft “d” like it would be pronounced in the Indian culture, this unfortunate individual will always be associated with images of porn movies when his name actually means “from the bottom of my heart.”

Another name, Harshit, meaning joyful, sounds like something more akin to stallion poop when delivered in an American accent. As you can see, this can get mighty embarrassing, and Hardik and Harshit often choose to become “Harry.”

There is an exception, though. Take comedian Russell Peters. Russell actually is his official first name. Russell, a Canadian, is part of the Anglo-Indian community, which is typically of the Christian faith, so their given names are more Westernised. And in spite of growing up in an Indian household, Peters is not your traditional Spelling Bee winning doctor/engineer. He often makes light of his non-Indian name along with the grief his parents gave him for going off the reservation, so to speak, by becoming a stand-up comedian.

Unfortunately, most ABCDs (that’s American-Born Confused Desis) are not as clear about where they come from as Peters is. While immigrant Indians go down this path to smooth their transition into American culture and adjust to their new life, for second-generation Indians, born and brought up in America, dealing with one’s name is part of a larger identity crisis. They often hear the phrase “Coconut — white from the inside, brown on the outside.” Their parents try hard to educate them on a culture they will never entirely experience aside from a handful of summer vacations every few years, while they are dealing with the everyday experience of being an American teenager.

For many children of immigrants, it is not about adapting. They genuinely feel more like a Harry than they would ever feel like a Hardik. At the end of the day, though, it is a personal choice. If you “feel white,” as Namrata “Nikki” Haley apparently does (so much so that she identified as white in a 2011 voter registration form, though she was born into an Indian Sikh family), then maybe you are glad for the opportunity to use an alias, even if your name is a simple one.

While it will probably take at least another generation before Indian children will sport names like Alex and Abby (unless they are a product of an interracial marriage), Indian parents are more cognizant of picking accent-agnostic names. For now, eight-year-old Karishma “Katniss” Patel (you know she is out there) is nurturing her dream of becoming president in 2052.

Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.

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