A User's Guide To My Stupid Name
On a trip to India, I learned that everyone had been pronouncing my name incorrectly. Maybe we're all trying to navigate the gray area between who you are and who everyone says you are.
I know my name is weird. I know it’s weird because wherever I go, people say it’s a name they haven’t heard or seen before. Since kindergarten, teachers would furrow their brows while taking attendance, struggle to read my name aloud, and inevitably come up with different incarnations: Skatchy, Scratchy, Satcha, Skatty. This would be followed by a knowing sigh from me and a "No, ma’am, let me help you, just cover up the C and the A in my name." Scaachi becomes Sachi and then you know how to say it. I know it’s hard. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.
I know it’s weird because Uber drivers ask me where my name is from, and then they ask me where I’m from, and then they argue with me when I tell them “the suburbs of Canada’s Prairies.” I know it’s weird because drunk girls at bars whose hair I’ve had to hold while they cry and barf in dingy bathrooms ask me for my name, and when I tell them, they always say, mid-hurl, “Oh, that’s pretty, are you Italian or something?”
But I know it’s weird because even when I’m with people who, culturally, should understand my name, they tell me it’s weird, too. They know I’m Indian — they can tell from the slope of my nose and my common last name, the way my baby hair swirls on my forehead — but my name still doesn’t make any sense to them. That’s how you know your name is really a newfound oddity: when the very people you’re usually associated with do not know what in the hot hell you’re supposed to be called.
When my family and I went to India late last November, I knew airport security would ask me probing questions about the stamps in my passport and whether my tube of lip balm was an actual tube of lip balm. I knew the elderly Indian man sitting next to me on the plane would ask me to repeat my name three, four, five times before settling on calling me Sanchi for 13 hours. I knew my entire family would largely ignore my first name and call me a collection of Hindi nicknames, ranging from real words (Rani, meaning “queen,” to Bubari, meaning literally nothing). It was our first trip together as a family in 15 years; last time we went, all but one grandparent was alive and excited to host us, my brother was in his early twenties, and I was 10. This time, all my grandparents were dead, my brother had two extra pieces hanging off of him (his white wife, and their half-white daughter with a full-brown name), and I had allowed myself the foolish notion that I was an adult within my family. We don’t go to India very often, and the last few times my parents have gone, it’s been because of deaths, each time coming home a little smaller, a little more prone to weeping. This time, at least, it was for my cousin Sweetu’s wedding.
We were only a few days into the trip when my sister-in-law, Ann (of course her name is Ann, like it hardly merits trying), mentioned that it drives her crazy when people say my name wrong. “Wrong how?” I asked. I am, I think, an expert at collecting the various mispronunciations of my name, categorized from the intentional to the casual mistake.
“They say it Sa-chi instead of Sahh-chi,” she said. The former version has a wider A, like “scotch” but with an A and forget the C. The latter, though, is a smoother, longer aww sound for the two A’s, the "chi" sounding like chee. She said it a few times. Sahhh-chi, the A’s sounding softer and more British coming out of her mouth. Sa-chi, the incorrect version, is what I’ve always given to strangers: It’s the easiest to say to a Starbucks barista and the easiest to offer an employer. When people say my name incorrectly, as they tend to, it’s easier just to say yes, you know what, you’re right, because I am tired, and there’s no one with my blood around to correct me.
On our trip, I listened to my parents, my cousins, my aunts, and my uncles say my name. I rarely hear it coming out of the mouth of a brown relative because so rarely am I referred to my by name: Instead, I get some nickname, something like Guguli or Gugaloo or whatever other version of gargling is used to indicate that I am being beckoned. But when I heard them say my name, it never sounded like the one I use back home. Theirs is that softer, British version, and though I have no real attachment to the pronunciation of my aforementioned stupid name, I felt guilty for warping it for so long.
My mother will deny that I was born a mistake, an accidental pregnancy when her other child was nearly in junior high, but she, like most mothers, is a liar: She was nearly 40 and preparing for a hysterectomy when her doctors told her she was pregnant. I was a crummy pregnancy — and born a jaundiced baby with a lazy eye and one ear folded over itself like a sad dog — frequently brought up when I cause my mother anxiety as an adult.
My grandmother named my brother 12 years earlier, a religious name that’s blessedly phonetic so it all worked out when they moved to Canada. Born in North America, I was the first truly Western child in the family, and so my dad did what he could to set me apart. “Billions of children are born every day and you are just another child,” my dad said. “I tried to make it a little different. Hopefully you do something different in your life.”
My dad liked the name Savyasachi, one of many names for a religious figure who could handle his bow and arrow with both hands. My dad shortened it, added a few letters, and gave it to me. So, my name means “ambidextrous,” despite my not being ambidextrous, and has the added bonus of sort of being made-up. “I should have called you Uma,” he tells me now. “Uma Thurman, she has an Indian name. She had some marijuana-smoking parents, some momentary Indian thing these white folks get into, and they wear beads and say 'namaste.' If another white person says 'namaste' to me, I will break their arms. Anyway.”
My dad left India in the late '70s, before I was born, when my brother was 2 or 3. His name is Vijay — "vih" and a soft J, but naturally, white people call him Vee-Jay, like he’s some VH1 icon. My mother’s name is Mona, or at least it is now: Years ago while rooting around my dad’s office, I found immigration paperwork for a "Bimla." Before I could jump to the conclusion that my parents had a daughter before me and she died in a horrible house fire (perhaps started by my brother — this is why he is so secretive), they explained that Bimla was my mother before she became Mona: Her name was changed once they moved here.
“I did that,” my dad told me recently when I asked again. “I hated her name. Bimla is a name given to old ladies.”
“So you just changed her name?” I asked him. “Why did she let you?”
“I am all-powerful.”
First-generation children, particularly nonwhite ones, particularly ones who come from regions where giving anglicized names are not tradition, end up defined by their peculiar monikers. The process of explaining, correcting, spelling, slowing down and spelling again — all of that ends up ingrained in whatever identity you carve out. So many parts of my person, namely my immediate jump to tell you how wrong you are and my inability to enjoy almost anything, feels inextricable from my dumb name.
Things inevitably get lost when your parents move from one country to another. The first loss is bodies: people you’ll never meet, people you’ll never really get to know. When we visit, an endless parade of aunties and uncles grab my face and tell me, in Kashmiri, a language I can barely understand, that they saw me when I was 18 months and boy, I am so big now. A relative picks up my niece Raisin and marvels at how she looks like my mother. Everyone knows us, and yet, we know no one.
I barely know my cousin, Sweetu, who’s getting married (Sweetu, of course, is a nickname that’s taken precedence, like so many others), but she is my favourite person at the wedding. In quiet moments, she’ll run her fingers down my hair or squeeze my neck or say something like, “This whole country is backwards and the sooner you get it, the better you feel,” followed by the very calm action of shoving a sweetmeat into my mouth. When she says my name, it sounds like butter sliding off the facade of a stack of pancakes, or like someone telling you a good secret. The A’s are smooth and long and the “ch” doesn’t sound so harsh as it always does in my head. I like hearing her say it and I imagine she says it the way it’s supposed to be said. No one says my name like Sweetu, so I follow her around for most of the wedding, waiting to hear her say it again.
No one says my name like Sweetu, so I follow her around for most of the wedding, waiting to hear her say it again.
Because the next thing you lose when you’re first-gen is language. If you speak it, like my Canadian-living cousins do, you know your version of the language will never be as nuanced as it is for your parents. And if you can only understand it, like my brother, you know you can never really participate in a conversation. If you can barely do either, like me, then maybe you understand enough to lace together sentences and meanings and insults. Or, if you understand none of it and speak none of it, like my niece, when you see all these people who purport to love you, you have no way of telling them you love them back.
Which is maybe why I like hearing my family say my name so much, and why I feel so stupid for pronouncing it wrong all this time. The change is subtle, likely one only I hear, but it’s enough to remind me that I don’t live in India and I don’t really make sense anywhere else either. I like hearing an authentic sound.
My niece has the appearance of a white person — porcelain skin, big blue eyes, curly brown hair — but her first and last names are deeply Indian, Hindu through and through. It’s actually the name my mother wanted to give me, and comparatively, it’s so simple and uncomplicated that sometimes I get angry at all these needless vowels. My niece’s names, frankly, are the only indication that anyone in her family comes from another place. I wonder if it’ll ever feel like a problem to her, the way it did for me. I want her to grow up to like her name. Above all, I want her to grow up to like herself.
I call her Raisin, because she was a purple mess at birth, and she calls me Boo, because that’s just what it’s always been. We’ve given each other two easy-to-pronounce indicators of identity that only we get to use, nicknames that have bypassed our real names, just like the rest of the family has been doing for generations. (Now my friends call her Raisin too, and other little kids around her call me Boo.) I asked her once if she wanted me to use her real name and she said no, not yet. She asked me if I wanted her to call me “Bua,” the Hindi term for your father’s sister, and I said no, because I like the childish simplicity of her little head poking into a doorway to say “Boo!” Besides, if a name is supposed to mean something, if it has to mean anything, I’d rather it be a name given to me by a sloppy baby who just couldn’t pronounce anything else. It makes me feel like I’m home.
If our names aren’t links to a past we can’t touch, at least they can tether us to each other.
Ever since we came back from the trip, I catch myself catching myself. I stumble at Starbucks now, spelling my name for these stupid little cups, pronouncing it slowly like I’m still getting using to it. My friends are noticing too, when I introduce someone and my voice registers a bit lower as I try to imitate Sweetu’s pronunciation. Even when I think I’m saying it right, the way my parents say it, I feel like a fraud — I don’t have this accent, I don’t know this language, where do I get off being precious about it? Or, rather, even more precious? And what do I do with all the people who say my name wrong but have been otherwise told by me that they were right? Do I correct my boyfriend? I have known him for nearly five years, so what is the right way of saying “I know you think you’re right, but turns out, I was wrong”?
Without noticing, I let the white people I’ve been raised with dictate the way my name is pronounced. It was always easier. I didn’t attach to any of my parents’ sounds when saying my name. Now the sound follows me everywhere, or rather, its absence. Everyone says my name wrong now, even when they think they’re saying it right, and it’s my fault.
Without noticing, I let the white people I’ve been raised with dictate the way my name is pronounced. It was always easier.
India is a hard country to navigate, arguably harder when you’re an actual brown person trying to visit your family. You live in those gaps: gaps where people have died and you lose relations, gaps where people don’t speak English and you don’t speak Hindi or, for us, Kashmiri, gaps where these people want to tell you they love you and they don’t know how. Raisin gets mad when they call her katsur — roughly translated, meaning “golden-haired,” though she is a brunette. What she doesn’t know is they’re trying to tell her they love her in the way only your blood can, foreign or not. They don’t have the words, so instead, names are all they can give. Come here, golden-haired, come here and let me look at you before you’re gone.
My mom’s sister doesn’t speak any English, but she is the last vestige of my mother’s side. My mother and her brother are estranged — I don’t know his name, nor the names of any of his daughters. I can’t remember my grandparents’ names and only barely remember my mother’s maiden name. But my mom and her sister are always holding each other for long stretches, whispering to each other in Kashmiri, words none of us can grasp, local dialects and colloquial terms. When she turns to me, she’ll ask a few basic sentences that I can understand, questions that are actually framed more like accusations: “When are you getting married,” or “Don’t you think you look like your mom,” or “Why won’t you eat more.” I just nod my head because I don’t have the ability to respond with any complexity.
And since we couldn’t communicate, and she couldn’t tell me whatever she might have wanted to, she mostly wrapped her fingers around my face, brushing my hair away from my eyes, saying the only thing she is sure I will understand: “Scaachi, Scaachi, Scaachi,” elongating the A’s as she goes along. “Scaachi, Scaachi.” No one else says my name like she does. I can’t get anyone else to replicate it — not my mom, not the aunts that I have in North America, not well-meaning white people who pronounce my name “correctly.” Nothing sounds like your aunt, with no other resources at her disposal, saying your name over and over and over again, a name you grew up resenting, turning it into something that can only possibly make sense to the two of you.
Scaachi Koul is a senior writer for BuzzFeed and is based in Toronto.