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How having a name no one can pronounce taught me who I really am

Here’s my biggest secret: Sometimes I can’t pronounce my own name.

Eight letters and four syllables, but my name presents endless dilemmas of inflections, non-tilted vowels, and transcontinental puzzles. I have the Magic 8-Ball of ethnic names: shake me, and you get a different answer every time. The truth is, I’m not always sure myself.

Growing up as an Indian in America, I always felt that a part of me was lost in translation. My name, so beautiful in my parents’ native Tamil, doesn’t quite match my flattened American accent. For a very long time, I couldn’t shed the weight of my eight scarlet letters, making me incurably, inevitably different.

And so I did what I had to do. I made up an alias Starbucks and practiced my “where are you from” response to perfection. I adjusted my autocorrect to avoid signing the emails as “malicious” or, god forbid, “malaria”. I stopped speaking Tamil and adopted American toothpick pronunciations. It was a pretty foolproof strategy, in my opinion – at least, until the sixth grade.

I think intuitively every American hyphen dreads the call. I suspect my teachers dread it too. When they get to my name, they usually freeze and the smiles disappear from their faces. Then they do one of three things, and that’s where it gets really wild. Some teachers withdraw immediately, keeping their honor intact. “I’m going to slaughter this,” they say apologetically. “Can the person who wrote MALAVIKA raise their hand?” Others advance stoically. “Mal―” they start valiantly. “Malak― Maliv―.” I usually save them at this point, for the sake of both of us. “Malavika,” I say, after consulting the Magic 8-Ball. And the last guy looks at my name and bends space and time to turn it into whatever name they want it to be. “Mallory,” they confidently announce. “Makayla.”

My name, so beautiful in my parents’ native Tamil, doesn’t quite match my flattened American accent.

My sixth grade homeroom teacher was part of the latter group. “Malina,” he called. I raised my hand. “It’s actually Malavika,” I said. “It’s phonetic.” My teacher was unfazed. “That’s what I said,” he insisted.

I opened my mouth. I had a few ideas for picking your fight and remembered how in kindergarten my mom volunteered to teach math to the class. She even brought candy and stickers to get the kids excited about the bill. But then she tried to pronounce the names of my classmates. With Ashley and Jack, there was no problem. The problem was Seth Corley. “Sett Corley, my mother had said.

The children laughed and Seth Corley was angry. “His Seth», He said viciously. “Oh,” my mother had said, looking embarrassed. “Sett― I am sorry.”

I had never been so angry with my mother as I was then. I wasn’t sure if I was mad at her for mispronouncing Sett’s name, or to apologize. She had crossed the oceans and learned four languages. And now she was apologizing to a pink-faced child named Seth Corley.

Six years later, I was still on call, being called Malina while my teacher rejoiced at her success. “Malina? he said. “Pretty close, right?”

Before I knew it, my heart was racing. I knew I was reacting, but I didn’t care because for a while I didn’t see my teacher. I saw the proud and petulant Seth Corley.

In my head, I proudly corrected him until he was right. I asked him to respect my name and learn it since I was in the class all year. I felt like the avenging angel of the children of immigrants, my arms raised as if I was the Statue of Liberty herself.

But that’s not what happened. In real life, I put my hand down. “Close enough,” I agreed, lowering myself into the silence.

As I sat in the classroom, I was still angry, but not with my teacher. I was no longer angry with the Seth Corleys of the world. I didn’t have any resentment towards my parents for giving me a bite of a name. At that time, I was just Malavika Kannan, trapped by teachers, baristas, and autocorrect programs – and myself.

Because here’s the problem: I didn’t just choose to compress myself into four long syllables, or get bogged down with pronunciation errors. I refused to embrace the immensity beyond my own name, the thousands of years of language, culture, humanity and belonging that were packed like suitcases in my bold big name.

All my life I had regarded my identity as hopelessly predetermined. Cursed by the hyphenated Indo-American gods, suffocated by the inconvenience of being different. I had been so busy sticking out my tongue that I forgot it was inexorably inside me, like a sleeping tiger just waiting to be awakened. And that’s when I made the momentous and life-changing decision to learn my name, as it was intended: in Tamil.

I didn’t just choose to compress myself into four long syllables, or get bogged down with pronunciation errors. I refused to embrace the immensity beyond my own name.

In my opinion, we spend our entire lives learning things – how to tie shoes, how to make pancakes, how to ride a bicycle. You spend your life learning, and then there’s this game-changing lesson. You can divide your entire existence into pre-lesson and post-lesson because it is so transformative. For me, this lesson learned my mother tongue, Tamil.

When I was 10 years old, I started with the Tamil alphabet. My parents taught me the vowels first, carefully tracing them on pieces of card stock for me to copy. My fingers tripped over the unfamiliar curls and twists, but they helped stabilize my hand. And then we moved on to consonants. Hybrid letters. Spelling rules and grammar tools and a thousand other things in between, until slowly, thoroughly, I could spell my own name.

After graduating from words, I moved on to sentences. Then rhymes, then poetry and even stories. As my understanding of Tamil progressed, I started to understand other things – for example, the meanings in the spaces between words. The wealth of eons worth of challenge, hope and wisdom. As I learned to read, I realized that I was also learning to reclaim the name which was never really appropriate for me. Just as I could wire my brain to read in two languages, I could train to thrive in two countries. Two cultures. Two identities.

Whenever people ask me my name, it is usually followed by the question “Where is it from?” Ideally, the answer is contained in a single longitudinal-latitudinal location: America. India. You choose the place that welcomes you with open arms, whose heart beats to the rhythm of your bloodstream, whose name echoes you. I was having trouble answering this question. I still do. But when I look at myself and the thousands of letters inside of me, I feel the same as usual when I watch the Florida sunset: that there is so much that I can’t will never know, but also so much that I can be.

Ultimately, learning to write my own name wasn’t just about memorizing syllables – it was about learning how to make a home for myself in the space between worlds. It was about bridging a cultural divide without making the big difference. It was about reforging myself and rekindling myself in the myriad of ways of a language I barely understood, but still loved.

Today, I am still a little shy before presenting my name. I still worry about the logistics of campaign buttons and bumper stickers, if I am my passion for politics in the future. But now I understand that I am neither Indian nor American, but both. I may be the product of my ancestors, but I am also the mouthpiece of my own name and the shaper of my own future – until the last letter.

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