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Call Me By My (Real) Name

By letting others mispronounce it, I found other parts of myself slipping. I’m done with that.

By Tanvi Bhatia 8 Aug 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Tanvi Bhatia is a writer, facilitator, community organizer and perpetual student beginning her MFA in creative writing at UBC in the fall. Her words have been published in SAD Magazine, BEATS Magazine, SPACE Magazine, the Star, and on her Twitter feed @sometimestanvi.

My name begins with a letter that doesn’t exist in English.

It’s written with a t but it’s closer to a th, though not the one you’d find in the or thanks. As a child it seemed simple enough to me — after all, my family could say it without a problem. But in South Burnaby, where I grew up, my name was always a negotiation.

The story of my name starts in my family’s home in New Delhi, just before I was born. Naming me was not an individual choice but a community effort. Extended family, neighbours and friends all had a say in what I might be called. It was a distant family member who had suggested Tanvi, and according to my mom, it just felt right.

Two-and-a half-years after my mother gave birth to me in a Delhi hospital, my parents immigrated to Canada, uprooting their lives and pulling me, and my name, out of the cultural context in which we were born.

In India my name is not an anomaly — it’s incredibly common, familiar, as any quick Facebook search would tell you. My first few years in Canada, it never occurred to me to pronounce my name in any other way. I remember introducing myself to my teacher on the first day of kindergarten, sitting cross-legged on the floor while she towered over me. She squinted down at me like the meme of the woman trying to solve a math problem. “Tanvi?” She repeated, incorrectly.

“No,” I told her, and tried again. We bounced my name back and forth like a tennis ball, her saying it wrong and me correcting her and her saying it the exact same way as before, until finally I put my racquet down and said “OK, sure.” That day, my name went from Tanvi to Tanvi, as in TAN-vee, as in not my name at all.

My experience is not unique, by any means. Many children of the diaspora arrived with names that didn’t quite melt down in the so-called melting pot of Canada.

Nojang Khatami, a PhD candidate who taught a class in identity politics and multiculturalism at UBC last year, has a similar story. Like me, his parents didn’t anticipate a move to Canada, and like me, his name contains a letter that doesn’t exist in the English language (j as in the French je, he tells me). Like me, he learned early on that his name was a challenge that others were often unwilling to overcome.

I was a student in Khatami’s seminar when I first heard the story of his name. Whereas my elementary school teacher had taken one look at my name and decided it was "Tan-vee" and not “Thun-vi,” Khatami’s had thrown his name out entirely and told him to pick a new one. He was eight years old, had recently arrived from Iran, and didn’t speak English. Trying to explain to his teacher how to say his name seemed like an impossible task, and so he complied.

For more than a decade, to everyone outside of his family, he was not Nojang but Richie. He’d chosen the name in honour of musician Ritchie Valens, after seeing the 1987 film La Bamba on TV. Looking back, he reflects, “When you don’t have the capacity to articulate who you are, it automatically goes into the hands of those who have power.”

Despite learning English as one of my first languages, I didn’t have a strong enough understanding of linguistics to understand why people in Canada struggled with my name, or to teach them how to say it.

Occasionally, I would bring my name out as a party trick — “you know that’s not really how you say it, right?” — and watch my peers try to repeat after me and inevitably get it wrong, laugh and go back to the version of me they were most comfortable with.

Once in a while someone would get it right, mostly those who came from regions close to India or who spoke other languages with similar linguistic patterns. For the most part, though, my name was almost always spoken with someone else’s tongue, and it never quite aligned with the way I identified myself.

The voice I hear in my head that tells me to introduce myself one way instead of another is the same one that tells me not to wear Indian clothes or speak Hindi in public, to bring sandwiches for lunch because they won’t smell as much. It’s the voice that tells me that some parts of my experience and identity are more valuable than others, and that if I want to belong I’d better leave the less desirable parts out.

Those of us whose identities exist on the margins learn to leave parts of ourselves at home. We create multiple iterations of our identities in an exhausting process of constant negotiation that forces us to exist in the disconnect between who we think we are and who we think we’re supposed to be. As Khatami says, “You haven’t created that identity, but you inhabit it. It becomes a part of you.”

When you make your name more palatable, you make yourself more palatable too. You adapt to the social norms and behaviours of where you are, and as a result, you start to lose parts of yourself and the place you call home.

A few years ago, a childhood friend of mine — a Canadian-born, aspiring actor whose last name directly translates to “The White” — called to tell me he’d finally figured out how to say my name. He had recently taken up voice classes, and in his linguistic study had come across the elusive th sound he’d never been able to figure out. “It’s like, you touch your tongue to your front teeth at the top of your mouth,” he said. “It’s really not that hard at all.”

As much as I wanted to laugh at his excitement over this discovery — something that the 1.3 billion people that populate India, not to mention surrounding regions, had figured out a long time ago — his explanation ended up being useful to me. It gave me the language to articulate what I already knew, but couldn’t figure out how to explain. I learned to teach people my name in a way they’d understand. Language is power, and the power over my name was back in my own hands.

For Khatami, the shift to going back to the name he was born with happened over time. “When you go through life, you’re not really thinking about the significance of your identity all that much,” he says.

Still, he eventually realized that the name Richie didn’t feel quite right.

“When someone would be calling me Richie, I would pause and be like, is that who I am?” He began reclaiming his name by asking those closest to him to start calling him Nojang. Soon, he had stopped using Richie altogether.

“For me, it felt right going back to who I was born as, where I came from. And none of that is to say that it should be the same for everyone. What was most important to me was that the people closest to me accepted it and embraced it.”

I am in the process of teaching people how to say my name. Many of my closest friends have learned how to say it, put in the effort to say it correctly. I am grateful for that effort, and their willingness to sit with the discomfort of an unfamiliar name in their mouth, until, through repetition, it can become familiar.

Now I am making an effort to say my name the way my mother says it, the way that feels truest to who I am. I am learning my grandmother’s recipes, and I’m speaking to my father in Hindi on the phone. I am discovering what it means to be both “Tan-vee” and “Thun-vi” at once, and exist in the hyphenation of two cultures, neither of which I’ll ever fully belong to.

Still, I often introduce myself with hesitation, unsure of which version of myself to present.

Maybe it doesn’t have to be a radical shift, but rather as simple as telling a stranger, “I’ll teach you how to pronounce my name if you teach me how to pronounce yours.”  [Tyee]

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