How Having A Name That No One Can Pronounce Taught Me Who I Really Am

I've learned to carve out a home for myself in the space between both my worlds.
Malavika Kannan

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

Eight letters and four syllables, yet my name presents infinite quandaries of inflection, unslanted vowels, and cross-continental conundrums. I’ve got the Magic 8-Ball of ethnic names: Shake me up, and you get a different answer every time. The truth is, I’m not always sure myself.

Growing up Indian in America, I’ve always felt like a part of me was lost in translation. My name, so beautiful in my parents’ native Tamil, doesn’t quite fit my flattened American accent. For the longest time, I couldn’t shake off the weight of my eight scarlet letters, making me incurably, inescapably different.

And so I did what I had to do. I made up a Starbucks alias and practiced my “where are you from” answer to perfection. I adjusted my autocorrect to avoid signing off emails as “Malevolent” or, God forbid, “Malaria.” I stopped speaking in Tamil and adopted toothpick American pronunciations. It was a pretty foolproof strategy, in my opinion ― at least, until sixth-grade homeroom.

I think that intuitively, every hyphen-American dreads roll call. I suspect that my teachers dread it too. When they get to my name, they usually freeze, and the smiles fade off their faces. Then they do one of three things, and this is where it gets truly wild. Some teachers retreat immediately, keeping their honor intact. “I’m going to butcher this,” they say apologetically. “Can the person spelled M-A-L-A-V-I-K-A raise their hand?” Others stoically march onwards. “Mal―” they begin valiantly. “Malak― Maliv―.” I usually rescue them at this point, for the sake of both of us. “Malavika,” I say, after consulting the Magic 8-Ball. And the last type stares at my name and bends space and time to transform it into the name they want it to be. “Mallory,” they announce confidently. “Makayla.”

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

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

I opened my mouth. I had some choose-your-battle thoughts, and I remembered how back in kindergarten, my mother volunteered to teach math to the class. She’d even brought candy and stickers to get kids excited about addition. But then she’d tried to pronounce my classmates’ names. With Ashley and Jack, there was no problem at all. The trouble was Seth Corley. “Sett Corley,” my mother had said.

Kids had sneered, and Seth Corley was angry. “It’s Seth,” he’d said meanly. “Oh,” my mother had said, looking embarrassed. “Sett― I’m sorry.”

I’d never been angrier at my mother than I was in that moment. I wasn’t sure if I was mad at her for mispronouncing Sett’s name, or for apologizing about it. She’d crossed oceans and learned four languages. And now she was apologizing to a pink-faced kid named Seth Corley.

Six years later, I was still at roll call, being referred to as Malina while my teacher rejoiced in his success. “Malina?” he said. “Close enough, right?”

Before I realized it, my heart was pumping with anger. I knew I was reacting, but I didn’t care, because for a moment, I didn’t see my teacher. I saw the proud and petulant Seth Corley.

In my head, I corrected him proudly until he got it right. I asked him to respect my name and learn it since I was in the class for the whole year. I felt like the avenging angel of immigrant kids, my arms held aloft like 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, subsiding into silence.

As I sat in homeroom, I was still angry, but not at my teacher. I wasn’t angry at the Seth Corleys of the world anymore. I wasn’t resentful of my parents for giving me a mouthful of a name. In that moment, I was just Malavika Kannan, trapped by teachers, baristas and autocorrect programs alike ― and myself.

Because here’s the thing: I wasn’t just choosing to compress myself within four lengthy syllables, or to get mired down by mispronunciations. I was refusing to embrace the vastness beyond my own name, the thousands of years of language and culture and humanity and belonging that were jam-packed like suitcases into my big bold name.

All my life, I had viewed my identity as hopelessly preordained. Cursed by the hyphenated Indian-American gods, stifled by the sheer inconvenience of being different. I’d been so busy outrunning my language that I had forgotten that it was inexorably inside of me, like a sleeping tiger just waiting to be awoken. And that’s when I made the momentous, life-changing decision to learn my name, the way it was intended: in Tamil.

“I wasn’t just choosing to compress myself within four lengthy syllables, or to get mired down by mispronunciations. I was refusing to embrace the vastness beyond my own name.”

The way I see it, we spend our whole lives learning things — how to tie shoes, how to make pancakes, how to ride bikes. You spend your life learning, and then there’s that lesson that completely changes the game. You can divide your entire existence into pre-lesson and post-lesson, because it’s just so transformative. For me, that lesson was learning my mother tongue, Tamil.

When I was 10, 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 stumbled over the unfamiliar loops and twists, but they helped steady 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, painstakingly, I could spell my own name.

Once I’d graduated from words, I moved on to sentences. Then nursery rhymes, then poetry, and even stories. As my understanding of Tamil progressed, I started to pick up on other things — for example, the meanings in the spaces between words. The wealth of eons’ worth of challenge and hope and wisdom. As I learned how to read, I realized that I was also learning how to reclaim the name that had never truly fit. Just like I could hard-wire my brain to read in two languages, I could train myself to flourish in two countries. Two cultures. Two identities.

Whenever people ask me for my name, it’s usually followed with the question, “Where is that from?” Ideally, the answer is contained in a single, longitudinal-latitudinal location: America. India. You pick the place that welcomes you with open arms, whose heart beats in time with your bloodstream, whose name is an echo of your own. I used to struggle to answer that question. I still do. But when I look at myself and the thousands of letters inside of me, I feel the same way that I usually do when looking at the Florida sunset: that there is so much that I’ll never know, but also so much that I can be.

Ultimately, learning to write my own name was about more than just memorizing syllables: It was about learning to carve out a home for myself in the space between worlds. It was about bridging a cultural gap without doing the splits. It was about reforging and rekindling myself in the myriad ways of a language I barely understood, but loved nonetheless.

Today, I still get a little shy before I introduce my name. I still stress out about the logistics of campaign buttons and bumper stickers, if I follow my passion for politics in the future. But now, I️ understand that I’m not Indian or American, but both. I might be a product of my ancestors, but I am also the speaker of my own name and shaper of my own future ― down to the last letter.

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