What’s in a name?

By the

April 26, 2001

Before I was born, my parents had a fairly typical argument over what they should name me. Both of them were relatively recent immigrants to the states and felt that there was a lot at stake in the naming of their firstborn child. If I were to born a boy, there would be no problems: My mom had unequivocally determined that I would be named Mikey (after the kid in the Life cereal commercial, don’t ask me why … ), and my dad went along with it. But if I were to be a girl, my dad was adamant that I have an Indian first name, presumably because a girl child would not retain his family’s Indian last name after marriage. If we had been living in India, my mom was all for giving me a normal Indian name. But faced with raising a child in a foreign culture, my mom was loath to curse her daughter with a name that would cause her to suffer years of ridicule at the hands of merciless elementary school kids and stupid teachers who would be unable to pronounce the name. This point was particularly important to my mother, who goes by the name Manju even though her given name was Vishalam, which is about as old-fashioned and ugly a name you can have in India, the equivalent of Bertha or Gertrude, no offense intended to the unfortunate few who carry these names.

My mom was bent upon naming me Michelle (strikingly similar to Mikey, you’ll notice). Eventually my parents came to a compromise, which was to give me a neutral name that could pass as Indian or American, and they would also make my middle name my dad’s first name as is standard in India. The resulting name was still pretty odd and neither here nor there: Anita Sridhar Chari. In India, the name Anita (pronounced “Aneetha”) is sort of a recognized name. While the name still sounds pretty foreign to my ears, to my parents it was a triumph. They had managed to record my Indian descent in the name while complying with their perceived duty to assimilate, as good citizens of the great melting pot. In my complete name, foreignness and familiarity hang together in a delicate balance, which is why I hesitate to even consider changing my name when I get married.

I should mention that some things have changed in my family since I was born. My parents have since gotten divorced, and both have remarried. My mom switched back to her maiden name, and my dad has since had a son who will carry on his family name. So my reservations about changing my name have nothing to do with them and everything to do with my personal feelings about the significance of my name.

Carl Jung once observed that one’s name is often synchronistically related to one’s life. He called it the “compulsion of the name.” For example, Jung, whose name means “young,” focuses on the idea of rebirth. “Freud,” whose namesake champions the pleasure principle, means “joy,” and Adler (“eagle”) concentrates on the will to power. I can’t say that I can see as strong a connection between my life and the meaning of my name. I don’t have a clue as to whether any individual part of my name means anything significant in a language that I comprehend, but I think that the foreignness of my name reflects a foreignness that is present within me. From my first days of kindergarten, where I was the only non-white kid, to my inability now to relate even to my relatives or other Indians, I feel like a foreigner in both of the societies that have made me. I feel at home in my alien name, though. Sacrificing its alienness by altering it would leave me foreign even to my own name.

Add to this the fact that my boyfriend of three years whom I will marry someday has the most normal, Anglo-American name possible: Andrew Thomas Royal. The fusion of my name with his produces a number of absurdities. I’ll leave it to you to combine and snicker at them. It also gives me the possibility of having a completely normal, American name: Anita Royal. When I was younger, I was militantly opposed to the idea of women taking their husband’s names. I still am, in principle. But now that I’ve fallen in love, I realize that the name is only the tip of the iceberg. Love involves a total surrender of oneself, so why does something as small as changing one’s name seem so important? Yet, I can’t help but feel, however irrationally, that changing my name would sacrifice some of my foreignness and force me to identify myself as something that I am not.

All this leads me to believe that it must have been with complete irony that Shakespeare asked the question, “What’s in a name?” So much is in my name, and I can’t give it away lightly.

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