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Even with nine months to think of a name for our son, our newborn was referred to as “baby” by the hospital staff while my wife, Priya, and I tested out different possibilities after delivery. “How hard is it to come up with a name?” I thought, throughout the pregnancy. We’d been surrounded by names our whole lives, everywhere. But finding one that appeased not only us but also our families, and the world that our son would live in, proved to be complicated.
Aside from wanting a name that the baby’s grandparents would be comfortable pronouncing, Priya and I felt an Indian name would help our son feel attached to his culture and allow him to have an easier time and more active role in embracing his background. We hope his values and identity are influenced by his race and we don’t want a part of his heritage to disappear. But having an Indian name in Canada has its own set of obstacles.
Growing up, not only was I initially ostracized by other kids for my unique name (which I no longer go by), but teachers also bypassed me out of fear of incorrectly saying “Harkaran.” This feeling of being the “other” continued into university, where peers admitted they initially avoided me out of the possible awkwardness that might arise with the mispronunciation of my name. Even now, I recoil when providing my legal name, and will opt to immediately spell it out, assuring whoever’s asking that I’m well aware of its difficulty.
Surely, there were Indian names that were easily pronounceable for everyone. Ones that didn’t require constant correction and were a happy balance between Indian and Canadian cultures. While brainstorming names that were Indian but still pronounceable for everyone else, I recalled “whitening” my résumé when applying for positions after university. I went by Kevin – the same name I give to baristas, the pizza delivery person and people I will never see again. This practice of whitening a name at the workplace is common for visible minorities. My cousin Harpreet goes by Harp. Rajbir goes by Raj. Loveneet goes by Sunny (don’t ask).
It could even be a key reason many visible minorities secure interviews. Even with a higher education, those with Asian names are less likely to be contacted for an interview than those with Anglo-Canadian names, a 2017 study found. Asian-named applicants, with identical qualifications, have up to 40 per cent fewer calls. Was it possible to have an Indian name without dooming our son to eventually having to anglicize it everywhere he goes? How much of a disadvantage were we giving him by choosing an Indian name? Priya and I initially believed we could easily choose a name that was both Indian and wouldn’t require constant correction, but through trial and error, and the due date nearing, we realized we were further than expected.
Our initial plan was to make a long list with every possible name, no bad suggestions, and eventually whittle it down. While looking through the registry of Alberta baby names in 2018 for inspiration, we noticed the absence of traditional Indian names that belonged to our parents’ and grandparents’ generations. Names common in India, specifically in Punjab, often contained the mix of two names morphed into one. But these names, the same ones being recommended to us by our parents, as well as aunts and uncles, were few and far between on the registry. Sure, there was the occasional Gurfateh or Virdeep, but the most common were Arjun, Aarav and Manraj. Names that would probably require less correction than more traditional ones, but still might cause some stumbles. Still, was it such an inconvenience to be called Maan-raj – surely how white people would say it – versus your Indian pals calling you Munraj? The slight difference in pronunciation certainly wouldn’t scar anybody.
My wife and I weren’t the only ones who struggled with this search. A cousin of mine told us that, after delivery, she wrote down a list of possible names on the whiteboard of her hospital room. She asked nurses to pronounce each name and then selected the one they had the least difficulty with. A different cousin, after exhausting the only Indian names she liked, opted to go with a traditional Canadian/white name. Another relative suggested we were overthinking the ordeal. She opted to name her daughter after her grandmother, a name that would definitely cause difficulty in the future. “If we can deal with it, so can our children,” she said. “Or they can always have a nickname.”
My wife and I came up with a system of our own. I went to work every day with a list of possible names, approaching white friends with them and asking if they were easy to grasp.
“Maan-if?” one confused co-worker said back to me.
“It’s pronounced Mon-iv,” I said
“And how’s it spelled?” he asked.
“Yeah, not sure about that.”
Co-workers would reflect on Indian friends they grew up with and suggest their names, only for me to explain to them that their friend named Jazz likely wasn’t really named Jazz, and Jazz was just short for Jaswinder, and he went by the nickname in order to ease everyday social interactions.
Occasionally, Priya and I would brainstorm names that my co-workers could actually pronounce, but then there was the issue of taking them to our families.
My wife is Hindu and most of the names her family preferred leaned in that direction. My family, Sikh, stressed the importance of a name that carried meaning or was taken from an ancient figure.
“Aarav?” my mother-in-law said. “What does that mean? It’s close to Aziz, just make it Aziz.”
Finding the middle ground between too white and too brown, between what our background and a white world would deem normal, was not getting easier as we involved more people.
Heading into labour, we had narrowed it down to two names. My co-workers had struggled to pronounce one of them, while the other, my parents said, wasn’t Indian enough. Stuck in the middle, Priya said once we met our son, the name would come to us. Hours after delivery, when my wife was holding our baby, she asked, “Are you thinking the same name I am?”
I told her I was, but we still waited three days before naming him Amari.
Karan Gill lives in Edmonton.