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From Confused to Confident

By Vidya Kurella

How do you say your name?

Vidya Kurella discusses why we allow Americans to mispronounce our names

My name is Vidya -- that’s like Lydia but with a "V", or like video, but with an "a" at the end. You might know someone named "Vidya" (pronounced "Vidhya") or have heard the name before -- if nowhere else, maybe at a temple. But most people I meet in my everyday life have never met a "Vidya" before.

When I was younger, I had a love-hate relationship with my

name. I loved it because it was mine. I hated it because no one ever said it right. Or, at least the people at school didn’t. I can remember dreading the first day of school every year. The teacher would take attendance and always, without fail, an awkward silence would fall upon the room just before she got to my name. After a few years of that, I began anticipating when my name would come up, and I would offer the teacher some help. But, let’s be honest, when you’re a kid, you hardly ever want to stand out, especially on the first day of school.

I have a cousin named Anuradha. There was a time (I think it was in junior high) when we called her "Alice." When she starting calling herself "Alice," I remember being jealous and angry at the same time. It was so cool that she had a name that everyone could say correctly and remember. She could go to stores like Claire’s or Great America and buy things with her name on it. But, what was wrong with her given name -- was she ashamed of it? I wondered how it was that she could just change her name like that and not lose herself.

When it was time to go off to college, I noticed some people changed their names. Some of my South Asian friends corrected the rampant mispronunciation of their South Asian names when they went off to college. They also surrounded themselves with other South Asians and danced in their schools' Diwali shows. Others adopted new nicknames to suit their new college-bound identities -- much like the character "Kris," formerly Krishna, in the movie, American Born Confused Desi.

Of course, not everyone fell into one of these categories. I didn’t. I found myself being "Vidhya" at the Diwali show and "Vidya, like Lydia" at the frat parties. What did that mean?

Does the world (like my ex-boyfriend) perceive me as more or less Indian because of the way I pronounce my name?

I once had an Indian (i.e. from India) boyfriend who took issue with how I pronounced my name in the presence of non-South Asians. He thought I should insist that people pronounce my name correctly -- like my parents say it. While most of my South Asian (and Latino) friends can pronounce my name like my parents say it, most other people can’t. He thought I should insist that they try. I insisted that people would mispronounce my name in all these different ways that I hated and that I just preferred a consistent mispronunciation. He concluded that I was ashamed of my Indian heritage. I continued introducing myself one way to South Asians and another way to non-South Asians, justifying it as the practical route.

What does it mean to be "Vidya"? According to the Penguin Book of Hindu Names, "Vidya" means "knowledge, learning, science, philosophy." It’s also another name for the Hindu goddess Durga. (Durga is an incarnation of Devi or the Mother Goddess, a unified symbol of all divine forces. She is also known as the goddess Parvati, the wife of Lord Shiva). But, is it more than that? Is it a true reflection of who I am?

How could my name be a reflection of me? It was given to me and I was not who I am when I got it. At the same time, isn’t my name how the world identifies me, how the world sees me? Does the world (like my ex-boyfriend) perceive me as more or less Indian because of the way I pronounce my name? Without my name, I would not be identifiable to the world. So, maybe my name isn’t a reflection of who I am, but rather a reflection of who I am to the world?

As I entered my professional life, I was faced with another opportunity to reinvent myself if I wanted. Once again, I chose the mispronunciation, by now conscious that I was choosing a mispronunciation. As an attorney, I work with a lot of people, and I decided that an easy to remember version of my name was more valuable to me than a properly pronounced one. Ironically, people even mispronounce the mispronunciation.

A few years ago, I wandered into a little shop outside of Los Angeles. It was filled with names. Names and definitions of names surrounded me. They were on plaques, in frames and on keychains. They were everywhere. As my friends walked around looking for something with their names on it, I just stood around. One of my friends asked me why I wasn’t looking for something with my name on it. I said, "I’m sure they don’t have anything with my name on it." I had long since given up looking for my name in places like that, because I was disappointed way too many times as a child. A saleslady nearby overheard me, came up to me and said, "I’m sure we have something with your name it. Come over here." She took me to a nearby counter and pulled out a print of my name and its definition. I almost cried. I finally belonged. I finally was recognized by my world.

I still get a lot of questions about my name, but I also get a lot of compliments. Fortunately, I no longer dread someone not recognizing my name. In fact, I’ve taken complete ownership of it and its uncommonness. I noticed recently that I often refer to myself only by first name, unless I’m specifically asked for my last name. Interestingly, my clients often don’t even know my last name, and I like it like that. I like to think that the awkward little girl who was uncomfortable with her name has become a one name phenomenon.

Vidya Kurella is a 31 year old attorney and lives in Washington DC.

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