- As a first-generation Indian American, I was taught to make the unfamiliar, familiar. Taught to take the “other” out of even something so fundamental as my own name.
I have a name crisis. Truth be told, even Kamala Harris, Vice President-elect, seems to have one as well especially as the topic of how to pronounce her name became national news. As a first-generation Indian American, I was taught to make the unfamiliar, familiar. Taught to take the “other” out of even something so fundamental as my own name and offer it in bite-sized pieces so it was comfortable and easy to pronounce to the recipient.
When Juliet asks “what’s in a name,” in her soliloquy from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, it is to make the point that her Romeo’s last name of Montague is meaningless, inconsequential. Sorry Juliet, but I say otherwise. What’s in a name for me? Everything. It highlights the tightrope that many of us children of immigrants walk on a daily basis, balancing two cultures, yearning to belong while simultaneously being different. If you want to look at how far we have come and how far we have yet to go, looking at how people pronounce foreign names is an appropriate barometer.
My name crisis came to a head when I heard my son saying my name. He was confused; he did not know whether to use the Americanized version or the Indian one. I realized it is because he did not know that due to years of mispronunciation, I had carefully created specific rules on how to say my name depending on to whom I am speaking. My name has taken on chameleon-like characteristics, its pronunciation changing based on whether I think you can say my name.
If you are South Asian, I will pronounce my full name properly. If you are anybody other than South Asian in a professional setting, I will pronounce my name as something that rhymes with margarita. If you are anybody other than South Asian and I have met you after college but before 2010, I used to introduce myself as “Soochee.” Post 2010, I prefer “Sooch” or the one that rhymes with margarita. Perhaps, I am not giving due credit to the recipient and using my own biases and prejudices to improperly assess their ability to say my name correctly, but these are carefully constructed rules informed by decades of experience. Yes, this is certainly a crisis of identity informed by another, not oneself, and a struggle that my son knew nothing about.
It started when the blue aerogram from my paternal grandmother that was supposed to tell my parents what to name me did not arrive. As my parents waited in the hospital room, my mom panicked. Having gone through her own name crisis, she refused to be in charge of picking my name. “What do we call her?” they asked. My father chose my name: Sucharita Sree.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love my name and its deep meaning. In Sanskrit, it means “of good character,” and “beautiful personality.” To be deserving of this name is another story but the aspiration and meaning have always been a source of great pride. Sucharita is also a rare name in the South Indian circle and until I was 24, I had not met another South Indian Sucharita.
During my childhood, my nickname quickly became “Suchi” (soft “u” hard “e”). My family and Indian friends of my parents said this with ease. But growing up in a Connecticut suburb can distort an easy two-syllable word to something more familiar. So in grade school and in my neighborhood, I became known as “Soochee.” I grew up hating it. How far it was from the beautiful name I was given. And to make matters worse, it rhymed with “sushi,” raw fish. Instead of aspiring to be one of good character or beautiful personality, I was teased for being inedible, raw, gross.
In high school my brother started calling me “Sooch” and I seized it. Anything to get me away from raw fish. Even though some of my dearest childhood friends still call me “Soochee,” I started shifting to “Sooch” in college. From meeting my friends in Tilton Hall that first week of college to my tennis team, Sooch became a comforting name mostly because it reminded me of my brother and of home.
I did not start using my full name until after law school. As I entered the law firm, I introduced myself as “Sucharita, rhymes with margarita.” My mom was around one day as I said that and she cringed. It was still far from its beautiful pronunciation but at least it had no trace of raw fish anymore. Now I was an alcoholic beverage and one that most people liked. (Side note: Kamala Harris in the preface to her 2019 memoir, “The Truths We Hold” writes: “First, my name is pronounced “comma-la” like the punctuation mark.”)
Having a four-syllable first name means that people take liberty to shorten it. I cannot tell you how many times I have been asked whether somebody can call me “Sue” or “Rita”. If somebody introduces themselves as John, is it ok to then ask to call them Josh? No, it is not. These days, I have little tolerance for such questions and simply reply “no, that is not my name.” But as a young woman entering the legal profession on the bottom of that totem pole, there were many times that I did not speak this truth. I would let these little transgressions pass without incident or mention. Privilege and power breed ignorance and subversion rendering the one with lesser power susceptible to such manipulation of something so basic as one’s own name.
Times are slowly changing. The frequency with which people ask to change my name is dwindling. There is more awareness about different cultures and the inappropriateness of certain questions. Movies and TV shows on Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu feature South Asians prominently and during this pandemic, pop culture has been kind to brown gals like me. Padma Lakshmi, Hassan Minhaj, Jameela Jamil and Maulik Pancholy have become household names. This year, Gitanjali Rao graced the cover of TIME as its 2020 Kid of the Year and of course, Kamala Harris was elected as the nation’s first Vice President woman of color. This is truly a different world than I grew up in and I am ever grateful.
Recently, I started introducing myself with my correct pronunciation. It is still hard for me to do this. It has been ingrained in me to make people feel comfortable in an attempt to not be seen as other or different. Saying my name properly makes some people uncomfortable.
Reclaiming my correct pronunciation, the same way that Kamala Harris has done, while scary, is also quite empowering. I still scan and sum up the person with whom I am entrusting with the correct pronunciation, fearful that they will make a comment like “what kind of name is that?” or simply, “what?” Or ignore me altogether and not register that I have just said a difficult name and that I am not worth the time to learn to say my name correctly. But then, I think of my children. And I am hopeful that one day my son will be able to proudly pronounce my name to his peers and my daughter Navya, will no longer have to say, “My name is Navya, rhymes with “luv ya.” In time, perhaps, I too will get over having my name mispronounced my entire life and trust others, trust new people and acquaintances, with the beauty of my given name. What’s in a name Juliet? Everything my dear.
Sucharita Varanasi is a corporate lawyer at MassMutual, a Fortune 100 company based in Springfield, MA. She is passionate about helping people and working towards systemic change through human rights advocacy. She leads MassMutual’s Pro Bono program, is President of the national SABA Foundation, the charitable arm of the South Asian Bar Association, and a 2020 Leadership Council on Legal Diversity Fellow. Last year, Sucharita volunteered with the Immigration Justice Campaign’s Dilley Pro Bono Project at the South Texas Family Residential Center providing pro bono services to detained immigrant women and children. Sucharita lives in Cambridge, MA with her husband and two children.