Say My Name

Part of me felt like a traitor. I felt like I was abandoning my Indian heritage. Like I was telling the world I was white. Or at least Latin.


I peered stealthily over the apples. Like a panther I was watching my
prey. I knew even from behind that it was him. His shoulder length, chocolate
brown hair, his tall slim stature, I was
sure he was
the one. I made way over to the melons so I could get a better glimpse. I
pretended to be examining the melons, when I decided to make my move.

“Excuse me, do you know what aisle the pickles are in?” Omigod, did I
really just ask what aisle the pickles are in? I couldn’t have said oysters or
chocolate or frozen peas? Ugh I was dying of embarrassment.


Mathias was a Johnny Depp look-a-like who worked at the local grocery
store where I grew up. He was a high school legend. Every teenage female (and
some males too) in a 20-mile radius had heard of the drop-dead gorgeous
Mathias. So I made my mission to find him. Every Saturday morning, I would drive
over to the grocery store in hopes of seeing him. I would plan my outfits with
the zest that most women reserve for choosing their wedding sari. And now here
he was live and in the flesh walking me to the pickle aisle.

“So what’s your name?”


“What?” A look of bewilderment flashed across his face as he tried to
sort out the pronunciation in his head. I cringed on the inside. The problem
with my name is that when people didn’t understand it, they didn’t simply ask
me to repeat it. They simultaneously made a face that one might make if I said
I drink my own pee or kill innocent puppies.

“Ray-sh-ma,” I really tried to sound it out.

“Ohhhh, that’s kind of a weird name.”

I cringed. I liked having an Indian name, but couldn’t it be something
more palatable like Reena or Gia, or Asha? When people tried to pronounce
“Reshma,” it sounded more like the sound one makes when vomiting than a name. I
was only 17 at the time so I lacked the self-confidence to tell Mathias he was
a complete and utter idiot for actually telling me my name was weird.

Needless to say Mathias didn’t work out.

Growing up in the very desi-friendly state of New Jersey, I had known
the same kids from 4th grade to high school, so it wasn’t like I had to
introduce myself to new people very often. The only exception came every
September when I had to introduce myself to all of my teachers. Although my
name is spelled “Reshma,” as all desis know, it’s pronounced “ray-shma.” The
problem is no one could seem to wrap their heads around this causing them to
settle for other random and bizarre pronunciations, such as “Reesh-ma” or
“Rice-shma” or simply “Resh-ma.”

It hit an all time low in the 11th grade. Most teachers would stumble
for the first week before finally figuring out the correct pronunciation.
However my AP English teacher, Mrs. Applebottom, was totally lost when it came
to saying my name at all even after the first month of school. My friend
Gretchen, unable to handle the constant butchering of my name actually got up
and shouted, “It’s RAY-SHMA!”

After that Mrs. Applebottom never screwed it up again.


Despite my name’s inherent un-pronounce-ability, it wasn’t something
that really bothered me until I got older and had to fly the coop. Guys, after
all, would eventually figure out how to say your name, if they really wanted to
date you. And growing up I didn’t encounter a lot of new people so it didn’t
matter. But entering the work force and socializing with a whole new group of
people presented a new set of problems.

I was 19 when I started working at a modeling agency. My job involved
answering the constantly ringing phones and helping the new models acclimate to
New York. This of course meant that I had to introduce myself to 10 to 20 new
people a day, (including clients and models) each time going through the same
back and forth explaining the pronunciation

My first day at work, I went out for coffee with one of the models,
John. He was new in town, and it fell to me to help him adapt to life in the

“So what’s your name again?” John asked.

“Ray-sh-ma,” I replied, bracing myself for the annoying back and forth.

“Huh? How do you say it?” John asked.



“No, Ray-shma.”




“Sure.” I gave up. It was a pointless endeavor.

I imagine if I had chosen to intern at a regular office like many of my
classmates (i.e. a law firm or an investment firm), where I would encounter the
same people over and over again or had gone to med school where I would likely
be addressed as “Dr. Khona,” it would have been no big deal. I could have made
my introductions and gotten it over with. However I chose to work in an
environment where I literally had to introduce myself to someone every 37
minutes. Exhausting to say the least.

But I put up with it, because I had no choice. Don’t get me wrong, it’s
not like I was incapable of making friends or dating because of my name. Nor
was it making me feel lesser than anyone else. And I was definitely not
embarrassed of my Indian heritage. If anything it was often the first topic of
conversation. Most people assume I am Latina and I am quick to point out that I
rotis over tortillas.

My name was however becoming an albatross around my neck. I just didn’t
feel like wasting my time explaining myself every single time I met someone
new, only to have them still butcher my name.

After interning at the modeling agency for the summer, I headed off to
Paris to study abroad. Interestingly enough, the French never had to ask me
twice how to pronounce my name and in fact had no problem whatsoever saying it,
albeit with a French accent. But I knew it wouldn’t last for long. When I
finished my year in Paris, I planned on backpacking across Europe by myself.

As I traveled from city to city, I was going to be meeting a different
set of people every few days so there didn’t seem to be much of a point in
explaining the exact pronunciation of my name for 49 minutes every time I met
someone new. Especially as chances were that I wouldn’t see any of them ever


Hmmmm, I wondered. Should I try being a “Rachel”? Just for the next
month while I was traveling? It kind of sounds like “Reshma.” But part of me
felt like a traitor. I felt like I was abandoning my Indian heritage. Like I
was telling the world I was white. Or at least Latin. And what about when I
encountered other Indians? Would they be onto me? Of course, other Indians also
assumed I wasn’t Indian either, but that didn’t change the uneasy feeling I had

After much debate, I finally decided to give it a shot. It would make
life easier after all, right? So I adopted the name “Rachel” and hopped on a
train bound for Munich. At my hostel the next morning I sat down next to a
group of backpackers in the hopes of making some new friends.

“What’s your name?” one of them asked.

I took a deep breath, “Rachel,” I said, nervous they would find out I
was a sham.

“Cool, I’m Sarah.”

That’s it. No weird faces. No asking me to pronounce my name 80 times.
Nope, Sarah just followed up by asking what I was doing that day. It was a
breath of fresh air and a huge weight lifted off me. For the next month, I
traveled with relative ease (in regards to my name anyway), but I found myself
overcompensating for my non-Indian name. I would pepper conversations with
references to Indian food, my family, or traveling to India. If anyone asked me
about why I didn’t have an Indian name, I was quick to point out I had to
change it because “crackers couldn’t pronounce it.” Making a joke out of it,
assuaged my guilt about changing it.

After I graduated college, I permanently adopted the name “Rachel” in
an effort to make my life easier. And easier it was. The albatross was gone
from my neck. Of course everyone I am close to (including my coworkers) knows
my given name is Reshma. The funny part is in the 10 years since I changed my
name, I haven’t encountered anyone who has actually questioned my Indian-ness.
Not even other desis.

It seems the only person who was questioning it was myself. That’s when
I realized there’s more to being Indian than my name. Belonging to a culture is
something that goes deep into your soul; it encompasses multiple layers. It’s
not something that can be turned off by something like a name. I still love
dandia raas,
, and cooking achari paneer. I still watch every Aishwarya interview I can and speak to my mother
in Hindi (albeit broken Hindi). I still chant the Gayatri mantra every night
before silencing myself in meditation. Saying I’m less Indian because of a name
change, would be just as silly as saying I’m less American because my family
isn’t white.

Of course, life as it often does, always comes full circle. I changed
my name 10 years ago to make it easier for me to work at a modeling agency. The
irony of all this? My boss calls me “Reshma.”

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