I Felt Pressure To Change My "Unpronounceable" Name. Here's Why I Didn't Do It

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You wouldn’t know this by talking to me, but when I moved from my native India to the UAE, my accent changed overnight. I was 11, and my parents had just enrolled me in a British school in Abu Dhabi. While most girls were worrying about getting boobs and hairy armpits, I was worried I sounded… “Indian.” Before long, I started imitating the English sitcoms from the '70s and '80s that I grew up on — to me, that was how English was supposed to sound. And though I could change my accent at will, my name, Akanksha, was, as I saw it, inescapably Indian.

At the beginning of every school year, teachers would stumble over my name during roll-call, their tone somewhere between apology and confusion: Un-can-SHAH? Uh-kan-shka? I didn’t mind correcting them initially, but what I said and what they heard never seemed to meet, so the compromised pronunciation was what I came to accept: Uh-CAN-shuh.

When we moved from Abu Dhabi to another British school in Dubai, that was how I said my name: uh-CAN-shuh. But the name still tripped people up. It was a reminder that I wasn’t white, that I was noticeably different, and that it took several repetitions for people to get my name right, even with the mispronounced version. No one made pointed comments to me, but I would overhear my classmates saying things like, 'Why are Indian names so weird?' And whenever anyone pointed out that the second K in my name wasn’t being pronounced, I’d tell them a nonsensical tale about how the second K was silent. As if pronouncing that K would expose my Indian-ness in an overwhelmingly white classroom.

Courtesy of Akanksha Singh

As a child, I remember whenever I’d approach the subject of changing my name, my mother would tell me how I was destined for this name. How my father and uncle both picked it as a name for their daughter, depending on who had children first. How the Hindu priest at my naming ceremony told my parents that the stars suggested that my name ought to start with a T, and my father remained adamant on “Akanksha.” My mother would always quash any talk of a name change with, “You can change it, but then you have to get your passport and your visa updated, too,” which, as a child, was a valid deterrent.

By the time I’d moved to Montreal for college, I was so certain of my faux persona, Uh-CAN-shuh, and all the rehearsed answers that accompanied it, that when a friend of mine from India pointed out that I wasn’t saying my name correctly in Hindi, I waved it off, saying, “I know, but this is easier for people to say.” I wasn’t sure which “people” I was referring to, but her comment made the mask I’d worn confidently for years feel exposed.

Courtesy of Akanksha Singh

Maybe it was the clean slate of college, or the first sprigs of maturity, but somewhere in my first semester I finally stopped worrying about concealing my Indian-ness. I’d suppressed so much of my being Indian in high school, that rediscovering it was like tasting something you knew you'd eaten before, but you couldn't place what. I listened to a YouTube clip of someone saying my name to make sure I was pronouncing it "correctly," and I wondered why none of the people who had mispronounced my name growing up thought to do that themselves. Why was my “difficult” name an excuse for not learning to pronounce it correctly? “Ah-KAHN-ksha” became easier and less alien for me to say. When anyone would say it wrong, I’d shamelessly correct them, watching them struggle through the second K and the combined “ksh” sound. It was as if accepting my name was the first step in accepting being Indian, something I, as a third-culture kid, was finally OK with. I felt real and seen and new.

That was, until the end of my first year: A guy I’d just introduced myself to responded with, “Nah, that’s a tough one. How about I call you Connie?” I don’t remember how I responded, and I don’t remember how I came to be vaguely friendly with this guy, and I definitely don’t remember how Connie caught on with classmates. But all of a sudden, I found myself using “Connie” when I ordered coffee. And what I do remember is debating, as I had done as a kid in Abu Dhabi after girls called me “A-skank-sha,” whether it might make sense to change my name. I remember wondering whether this feeling — one of inadequacy, almost, that I was Akanksha, and not Connie — would ever go away.

But at college in Canada, I didn’t need my parents’ signatures to change my name. And if I wanted to avoid all the paperwork, I could just change my Facebook name. Yet, every time I’d go to the settings page, I couldn’t think of an alternative name. I’d click “Cancel” and go back to being Akanksha. I could be anyone, yet I couldn’t bring myself to not be Akanksha.

Courtesy of Akanksha Singh

I realize now, that if the Connie incident hadn’t occurred, had someone else not suggested a new name for me, I might not have clung to my real name as desperately. It was as if, by removing all the barriers that came between me and the persona I’d crafted through my school years, I realized that I was attached to who I'd been all along. It took years, and another three moves — Finland, Singapore, and Australia — for me to merge my third-culture persona and my Indian one, and be comfortable with who I was — Akanksha. I wish I could pinpoint that turning point with more accuracy, but, truthfully, I think it was a combination of growing up, and having an increasing number of people tell me my name sounded unique and beautiful (and believing them). I wish that those compliments hadn’t impacted me as much, and that I’d come to love my name on my own, but they did, and I’m all the better for it.

I’ve often heard people debate whether names are something we grow into, or if they have any impact on our personalities. For me, my name is something I’ve grown into, especially as an Indian woman. I’m still far from confident about what others think of me. My name is something I've had for my 26 years. It’s lived with me through 11 cities and six countries. So, I think I’ll keep my name. Not because there’s still a lot of paperwork, or because I don’t think I suit “Connie,” but because I said so.