I Like My Name

“Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.” - Warsan Shire

I like my name. I like it a lot. But all my life I've told people to pronounce it incorrectly, save for my family and Indian friends.

My name is not pronounced "Tan-may" like the color and the month. It is pronounced "Th-uh-n-m-ai" with what I think is an emphatic "Th.” Here's a link that should help because I'm clearly struggling through this in-text explanation.

And if we're being completely true to the Telugu, the pronunciation is closer to "Th-uh-n-my-ee," but even my parents don't pronounce the "ee" at the end.

So, I've walked through life mainly as "Tan-may," not as what my parents named me, refusing the first of many gifts they gave me. With this anglicized new name, foreign to all, I brought with me a load of justifications: I was so young and so new to America when they first mispronounced it, and I didn't correct them then. I continued to use "Tan-may" to correct those saying my name wrong as if "Tan-may" wasn't just as wrong. I told myself that "Tan-may" makes the most sense in translation to English because these sounds exist in English, as if new sounds can't be learned - Hadn't my parents become fluent in English, in which the "r" sound, especially in words like "girl," is so strange to them? Wasn't I studying Arabic now, where I've learned many new and beautiful sounds? - I told myself that "Tan-may" was just easier for everyone, myself included, because it meant that I didn't have to say it ten times over, just two or three. I told myself many things, subconsciously explaining why I hid my real name from the world, specifically the non-Indian world.

But why? Why couldn't I just tell everyone that my name is pronounced "Thun-mai" and we can sit down together until you get it right?

Partly, I believe it has to do with assimilation. There's a great pressure in America to assimilate - to leave your foreignness and differences at the door, and be as American as possible, whatever that means. I was embarrassed of a lot of things as a kid because of my differences. I was embarrassed to bring my mom's food to school, embarrassed if I pronounced something in an Indian way and was immediately corrected, and even embarrassed of my parents coming to school events because they had accents or didn't know how to act the Right way. I regret that I was scared to embrace my culture and my roots. It's probably my biggest regret. As a kid, I didn't know better. I did what I could to fit in and be liked, and if that meant rejecting parts of myself and my parents, I did it. I learned that I needed to accommodate or assimilate. It was never reciprocal - or at the very least, I never saw that it was. I changed my name willingly, and I didn't think much of it.

Secondly, there's also a more personal element to it. In addition to facing assimilation and, at times, surprisingly closed-minded peers, I also became increasingly self-conscious, quiet, and even self-loathing to an extent as I grew up. There are many reasons behind this, and I won't go into them here. That would be an essay in and of itself (or ten). My point is, it affected how I approached my name. Again, "Tan-may" only required repeating it twice, maybe three times for people. "Thun-mai" would've required a lot more. I didn't want the attention, nor did I have the confidence for it. In these years, I was much fonder of shrinking myself and taking up as little space as possible. [Saying "in these years" makes it sound like I surpassed that period in my life. That would be untrue, but it has certainly gotten better.] "Tan-may" meant people concentrated on me less. I wasn't strong enough to carry "Thun-mai" then.

Coming to the present, I thought about my name again in reference to coming to India. I'm in India right now to learn Urdu. I knew I wanted to pronounce my name "Thun-mai" here because you can’t say, "Mera naam 'Tan-may' hai"? It's sounds awful, cringeworthy really. So, "Thun-mai" it would be. Further, among Indians, I always said "Thun-mai." It's funny, isn't it? With Indians, I was always embarrassed that I even call myself "Tan-may," but with Americans, I have successfully avoided telling most people that my name is actually pronounced "Thun-mai."

I struggled again with "Tan-may" versus "Thun-mai" when it came time to meet those in the Urdu group. I started with "Tan-may" because it's become second nature, and it's become my not-with-Indians identity. But I decided again that I just couldn't call myself that in India, so everyone would have to be able to say "Thun-mai." Everyone does call me by my real name now in India, and I never realized how much I was missing before.

I've obviously heard it before many times from family and friends, but I think "Tan-may" has been spoken more than "Thun-mai" in my life. Now, every time I hear my name, I feel just that much happier, lighter, truer. It's hard to believe that I ever thought "Tan-may" was ok, even though that time lasted until a few days ago. I'm not sure why I didn't realize it until now. A switch just flipped on.

{Maybe I thought that people wouldn't get it right. Maybe I thought that no one would care enough to. Maybe I was embarrassed that it was so different. Maybe I didn't even realize the adjustments I made in favor of being more American. Maybe I didn't want the trouble that came with having people say it five times before getting it right. Maybe no one properly berated me for it. Maybe a lot of things. Make no mistake, though, I did it. I butchered my own name. It's not that I struggled through "Thun-mai" and people chose to pronounce my name incorrectly. I told them to.}

I know this realization about my name is a small one, but it's an important one.

So to you, I say, don't do what I did. Tell people what your name is. Your full name. Pronounced correctly. With all the sounds that your mother tongue can make. I know many people who've shifted or changed the pronunciation of their name somehow so as to make it more conducive to the ears and mouths of Americans and Westerners. Don't. Explain your name. Draw out its pronunciation. As my Arabic professor says, "Sing it!" Teach them. Make it a meaningful exchange. Warsan Shire says it brilliantly, give your daughters difficult names. Tell them not to trust anyone who cannot or will not say it correctly. Tell them that there's no reason they shouldn't embrace their beautiful names.  There are enough words in the English dictionary without us making up more, out of our names, no less. 

My mom gave me a beautiful name, a strange one, a difficult one, the right one. Don't cringe because your name is different, you're different, your parents are different. Revel in those things and most everyone will revel with you. I didn't have the confidence throughout a lot of my life to do just that but I'm starting to and it's good.

I questioned the fact that I was writing more than 1000 words about my weird identity crisis that I myself created. But I think the idea is to not hide or shrink yourself. Don't erase yourselves - however big or little that erasure is. Extend yourself, take up more space. {Command the space you deserve. You do deserve it.}

Because I only just found the confidence to say one word (or two, counting my last name) correctly, I'll defer to the stunning Nayyirah Waheed: 

the invitation.

respond to rejection. by being more you. whenever you are hurt. and may want to contract. disappear. shrink. dim. fold. hide. as a reaction to any form of rejection. i gently invite you to try this : expand. be more you. not less you. expand. -- rest.relax. deeper inside the very thing that is being ridiculed or rejected. folks reject you because of the color of your skin. rest. in the color of your skin. find more colors in your skin. folks feel some type of way about your sexuality. non sexuality. non gender. gender. your faith. your expressions. your language. your clothes. your hair. your laughter. your romantic inclinations towards them. your fears. your failures. rest deeper in all these things. rest deeply in you. -- honoring your greatest authenticity only serves to make your authenticity. your existence. your body. soul. mind. healthier. brighter. stronger. -- being your most self. only makes you a life. accurately. breathtakingly. yourself.

I like my name. And still, I buried it. I made myself less Indian, less Telugu, less whole, even just by a little. So now, I will rest in my name, Tanmai. For so long I joined in the rejection, captained it even, but no more.