Are foreign sounding names an asset or a liability?

Pradip Rodrigues

I was browsing the New York Times over the weekend when an essay titled For Muslim-Americans, Baby Aidan or Baby Muhammad? caught my attention.
The American author of Muslim origin and his wife were agonizing over a decision to give their newborn a Muslim name or something more neutral sounding. “Should we give our baby a lesssouth Muslim-y name?” he asked his wife. He finally settled for Ibrahim. There were hundreds of reactions to the piece, while most were supportive of the author’s decision to ultimately give his child a ‘Muslim-y’ name, others wondered if doing so placed an unfair burden on the child. The jury, needless to say, is still out there on this one.

Many famous personalities change their names

Many famous personalities like Allen Konigsberg for example changed his name to actor/director Woody Allen. Robert Zimmerman changed his to the legendary musician Bob Dylan. One of the greatest architects of our time Frank Gehry’s parents changed his name from Frank Owen Goldberg after moving to California. His parents, Polish Jews immigrated to Canada prior to that and believed changing his last name would make his professional and social life a lot easier, after all they suffered terrible discrimination, even Frank Gehry was tormented growing up for having an odd name and for being Jewish. Countless Jews adopted anglicized names and often disguised their last names.

Other groups like Asian-Americans tend to give their children American sounding names for practical reasons. Eastern Europeans in North America too often prefer anglicizing the names of their children. After all in business and in social circles it is undeniable that having an easily pronounceable name and a neutral-sounding name opens doors and just makes more sense. It also helps an individual to blend in without having to sound like a hyphenated foreigner.

Names should sound neutral

Take my own example, I grew up Catholic in Mumbai and my parents decided to name me Pradip an Indian name and kept my middle-name Francis to reflect my so-called identity. The reasoning was that since we lived in India it made sense to have an Indian name. When we decided to make Canada our home we didn’t give our son an Indian name but a name more reflective of the society.
Thousands of South Asians immigrants and their children living in North America either go by other westernized names or are called something else by friends and work colleagues so much so that it ends up sticking, in some instances even their own parents end up calling them by their newly adopted western names. I am not sure why Canadian billionaire Bob Dhillon’s changed his name Navjeet Singh, but Bob is a name commonly adopted by South Asians. Sometimes having the right-sounding name can help in one’s success, especially in Hollywood. American actor, producer and civil servant Kal Penn was for a while called by his real name Kalpen Suresh Modi.
American actress and comedian and star of the acclaimed sitcom The Mindy Project was once Vera Mindy Kaling Mindy Chokalingam. Current Govenor of South Carolina Nikki Randhawa Haley was originally Nimrata Randhawa and of course Bobby Jindal’s birth name was Piyush.
South Asian parents who’ve immigrated to western countries are usually very reluctant to give their children anglicized names and they have very good but mostly emotional reasons for it. The most common being that the name of their child reflects their culture, religion and heritage. It is their identity. First-generation immigrants tend to stubbornly insist on giving their children names steeped in Indian or their own family history and mythology. They want their child and everyone he or she comes in contact with through their lives to know all about their culture and rich heritage. But often what ends up happening is that the children go to school and over time Balvinder becomes Bal, Mohammed becomes Mo, Harbance Singh becomes Herb and in time they end up accepting and preferring their unofficially adopted anglicized names. So much for all those culturally appropriate names.

Names should not be a burden

Muslims in the west despite realizing that giving their children profile-worthy names will cause problems for them down the line continue to do so. Some parents don’t shy away from giving their children names like Osama or Jihad regardless of the implications.
While most people in the world have no trouble pronouncing names like Osama or Balvinder, some South Indian names are real tongue-twisters and such names could really prove to be a liability in business, professional and social circles. Most professionals end up either shortening such names or simply adopting a name that is easy to pronounce. Indian call center staffers are usually given new American-sounding names along with their employment letters.
One South Asian parent I know gave his son a name that is quite rare even in India and when I asked him why, he said he did it to make his parents happy. I am sure that name will give his child profound grief growing up. It was the name of his great-great grandfather. Oddly the parent himself adopted an anglicized name which he told me made sense in business and was quite sure that his son too would quickly adopt another name as he grew older.
If foreign-sounding names are difficult to pronounce but have some significance for the family, it might actually be more respectful to keep it as a middle-name which can be used in religious ceremonies. Keep it sacred rather than open it to being shortened, changed or ridiculed would be a more sensible and practical thing for parents who choose to live in a western society. Unless ofcourse the Indian name is easy to prounounce like Raj which itself is shortened or Shiv.
Ofcourse there are so many advantages to having a western-sounding name. Parents needn’t worry that the identity of their children will be lost if they choose to do so, being brown is usually quite a giveaway. I have yet to meet a South Asian who has lost his cultural moorings after changing his or her name. As parents we often want to protect our children from needless grief, ridicule and discrimination. It sometimes starts with a name.

Pradip Rodrigues started out as a journalist at Society magazine, part of the Magna Group in Mumbai. He wrote extensively on a variety of subjects. He later moved to the Times of India where he was instrumental in starting the now defunct E-times, a television magazine. He conceptualized Bombay Times and became its first assistant editor where he handled features and page three. Since coming to Canada in 2000, he has freelanced for newspapers and magazines in India and written autobiographies for seniors.

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