It Took Me 18 Years to Embrace My Name

I used to allow people — even my brother — to mispronounce my name. I finally put a stop to it.

II don’t remember how or when FEE-za was born, but I can imagine my reluctance to correct the teachers who, during roll call, would announce this mispronunciation of my Muslim name with a confidence I didn’t know a name could hold. There was no “Did I say that right?” No room for even a reluctant plea for rectification, let alone a chance for me to boldly assert myself as the FIZZ-ah my Pakistani mother birthed in my hometown of Indore, India.

The butchering was done with such conviction that I forgot it was a mispronunciation at all. My teachers probably knew better, I thought.

But it didn’t take long to internalize the inaccuracy and make it mine.

“It’s actually FEE-za,” I valiantly told my parents and younger brother, proud of the mispronunciation I’d adopted sometime during my first childhood years in America — somewhere between New York, Texas, or Georgia — at one of the dozen suburban schools I’d end up attending before high school graduation.

My folks didn’t seem to care much. “If changing your name makes life easier at your American school, then go for it,” their apathy implied.

Ease was the goal, after all. After decades of instability, of bouncing from country to country, state to state, and city to city to ensure a future safe and fruitful enough for their children, quiet assimilation to White America was a signifier of success in my parents’ eyes.

Nikita Redkar, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Austin, Texas, can empathize.

Like me, Redkar, who goes by Ni-KEY-da, moved around a lot as a kid and grew up in predominantly White American neighborhoods.

“Teachers would look at my name on attendance lists and pause with doubt,” she says. Afraid to draw attention to herself, a shy Nikita adopted whichever pronunciation caused the least fuss.

Her parents understood, just as my parents did.

“Their mentality was to survive, survive, survive,” she says. “That was just life in the ’90s.”

GGenerations of immigrants before us have aspired to do the same. After all, research has consistently shown that immigrants who try their best to “pass” as natives by shedding their accents or changing their names have, historically, fared better within the labor market.

And if the recent public charge policy tells us anything at all, it’s that our worth as immigrants is directly tied to how much we have in our pockets.

Regret began overwhelming Redkar only in recent years, after she joined a Facebook group for South Asian–identifying women called the Little Brown Diary, a community that has amassed more than 22,000 members from all over the world.

“Seeing women like me embrace their identity to the fullest made me feel like, ‘Ah, I fucked up,’” she says.

But Redkar can’t help introducing herself as Ni- KEY-da to non-Indians. The original pronunciation of her Sanskrit name, Nee-KEY-tha, sounds unnatural on her own tongue, she says.

And when she does reluctantly introduce herself as Nee-KEY-tha around fellow South Asians, it’s certainly not out of pride.

“It’s mostly out of fear,” she admits. “The fear of them othering me.”

It’s a strange fear to have, being othered by the people who look most like you. But I know it well.

“You know, that’s not your name,” my mosque mates and religious education teachers reminded me again and again as I reached adolescence. “Your name is Fiza. FIZZ-ah. Like the movie.”

Ah, yes. The movie. A 2000 Bollywood film titled Fiza, starring superstars Karisma Kapoor, Jaya Bachchan, and Hrithik Roshan. A movie about a Muslim family in which the protagonist, Fiza (Kapoor), sets out to find her missing brother only to learn that he’s joined a terrorist group. That’s just the attribution I needed in a post-2001 America, an America emboldened by Islamophobic rhetoric and military action to ensure people like me knew just how far down the ladder we’d fallen, how unlikely we were to catch up with the naturalized citizens we dreamed of becoming.

I was too young or oblivious to know then that internalized racism was at work.

I convinced myself that embracing the mispronunciation kept me at a healthy distance from my roots — that it was the smart and safe thing to do if we wanted this new country to keep us around.

Instead, I simply carried the two names — FEE-za and FIZZ-ah — around like one heavy burden, picking and choosing the inflections that best appeased the crowd around me. At school, in the White suburbs of Georgia, I embraced FEE-za and everything the mispronunciation seemed to erase — my color, my language, my religion, and its very meaning: a cool breeze.

At mosque with my brown-skinned friends and in relationships with brown-skinned men, I reluctantly gave in to FIZZ-ah and still remember enjoying the way my birth name sounded and tasted on their lips. For a brief moment, I’d ache for my name to feel as alluring on my own tongue.

I convinced myself, however, that embracing the mispronunciation kept me at a healthy distance from my roots — that it was the smart and safe thing to do if we wanted this new country to keep us around.

Then I witnessed the sweeping, historical election of America’s first Black president.

I remember, quite vividly, remarks from classmates about the new president’s Muslim middle name and the implied danger it carried. I remember nods of agreement around the room and quickly assured myself that maybe my peers just didn’t know I was born Muslim, that they didn’t really mean it like that.

My ignorance and naivete revealed that I was, unfortunately, really acing this assimilation thing.

That was the first year I began consciously making room for the growing wedge between the FEE-za I’d absentmindedly molded into and the FIZZ-ah who reminded me there was no escaping my otherness.

I began losing patience for the mispronunciations and grew angry with myself for being so aloof. How would I right what I felt was my wrong?

FFor Shweta Karikehalli, who spent more than 20 years with her own mispronunciation, the chance to shed SHWAY-da for SHWAY-tha began with a move to a city and a state where no one knew her.

Georgia was just as homogenous as Karikehalli’s old Syracuse neighborhood, but for the first time in her life, she started introducing herself to strangers with a name that felt like home.

“That’s where the confidence came from — when I started saying my name correctly out loud. It finally felt natural.”

When you move to a new place or start a new job and have to constantly introduce and reintroduce yourself, you get used to hearing the way your name sounds in your own voice.

“That’s where the confidence came from — when I started saying my name correctly out loud,” Karikehalli says. “It finally felt natural.”

Upon graduating high school, I also began introducing myself to strangers as FIZZ-ah. College orientation gave me plenty of practice to assert myself — even after a new professor’s second or third mispronunciation.

But how would I convince the people who’d spent the past 18 years calling me by a butchered version of my name to unlearn it just because I’ve had some life-altering reckoning?

“It’s certainly a lot for someone to grasp,” Karikehalli says. Though most of her loved ones have been incredibly understanding, one friend’s reluctance to adopt her new pronunciation was enough to momentarily set her back.

I’ve accepted that my identity, like my memory, is destined to feel fractured.

“I remember just laughing it off, because it was just uncomfortable,” Karikehalli says, wondering if she should have stuck up for herself. In the end, she reasoned that her friend, who is White and has a common American name, might just never understand.

Radhika Gore, on the other hand, vowed to take no prisoners.

“I’m turning 21 soon, and I’m going to stop being afraid of correcting people over and over again,” she wrote in a Facebook post, a friendly public service announcement for all to hear. “If I can learn to pronounce and sing words in Spanish, French, German, English, etc., others can and now will have to try harder to say my name correctly.”

Gore even included a handy breakdown:

Ra — as in rah rah ah ah ah from Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.”

Dhi — I am modifying to my country tis of THEE. Same sound, not difficult.

Ka — rhymes with ra.

While I don’t see a social PSA in my future, Gore’s bluntness did inspire me to give my younger brother a nudge. More than a decade after I decided to personally reclaim FIZZ-ah, he’s finally beginning to address me as such.

For some, a name might just be a name at the end of the day. My birth name, however, is a family gift I let rust in the back of my closet, unused and neglected for more than half of my life. It represents my roots, my culture, my complicated relationship with religion — all of the Brownness I once wanted to color away, even erase.

As an immigrant old enough to witness the challenges of the migrant experience but too young to remember my birth country, I’ve accepted that my identity, like my memory, is destined to feel fractured. One place or culture will never feel like the perfect setting for my story. But by claiming this singular name, and wearing it boldly, at least I know this is my story to tell.

Atlanta-based writer/editor and bibliophile. Founder of immigrant and refugee mental health newsletter, Foreign Bodies. Join: foreignbodies.net 💌

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