Kamaa-la, Camel-a, Kama-lot. Not only does US vice president Kamala Harris regularly hear her name being mispronounced, but so does character Kamala Nandiwadal (Richa Moorjani) in the Netflix series, Never Have I Ever.
It’s an unsettling experience that’s all too familiar to many children of immigrants, including Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who plays Kamala’s cousin, Devi Vishwakumar. The actor said it was important to explore the mispronunciation of names on the show “because that's often the case with many South Asian names or any kind of complex names.”
“Names are really important,” the 19-year-old Canadian Tamil actor told Refinery29 Australia over Zoom, explaining that she used to anglicise her name to make it easier for others to pronounce it.
“I used to tell people, ‘Yeah, call me my tray, like my tray of cookies’,” she said. “And it’s just a slight change. I would just say, ‘Yeah, my name is my tree.’”
It wasn’t until she scored the lead role in the Mindy Kaling-produced show in 2019 that she decided to pull people up on how they said her name. Now, she can’t imagine ever changing it for anyone.
“When I came to Hollywood and people were like, ‘Sorry, how do you say your name?’ That was my epiphany of like, ‘You have a fresh start, no one here knows your name, go for it.’ And I’m really proud of my 20-letter name. It’s pretty awesome,” she said.
“I don't ever plan on changing it, and I just want people to respect that and try their hardest to say it right. Obviously, they might not get it right the first time, I get it, that’s totally fine. Just try and just give me that respect because that's something that everyone deserves when it comes to their own name.”
And that's the tea sis☕😂 https://t.co/0ZY8RGde5V— Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (@ramakrishnannn) July 11, 2019
Like Ramakrishnan, many South Asian women in Australia have felt the need to abbreviate or change their names for others' benefit. Sydney-based content creator Swarnaa Rajalingam (aka The Life of a Social Butterfly) has over 83,000 followers on Instagram, yet very few would know her full first name is actually Swarnapradha. The 28-year-old said she has felt “extremely embarrassed” by her name from a young age.
“Ever since I started school in Australia, it was a name that teachers and students couldn't get their head around pronouncing, so my parents shortened my name to Swarnaa,” Rajalingam told Refinery29 Australia.
“Even so, the way it's pronounced is Suwar-na, however, my name was anglicised into being pronounced as Swana quite immediately at school. Now I'm at a stage where people will ask me what my name is and I have a buffer moment where I wonder, ‘Do I introduce myself pronouncing it as Suwar-na or Swana’ and almost always opt for Swana because it's what I've become used to over 28 years.”
Things can get awkward when elders within her Tamil community ask for her “actual name” when she introduces herself as Swana, or when she does the simplest of daily tasks, like ordering a coffee.
“Whenever I'm the one ordering and I'm with friends, I either opt for a friend's name or I spell my name as Swana just to make it easier and to save myself the embarrassment of having to spell it out multiple times or have it butchered in pronunciation,” she said. “I do hate doing it and wish we could confidently say our names without having to shorten them or think twice. It's a big part of who we are, our heritage, and our lineage.”
Gaayathri Ariyakumar recalled similar experiences growing up, leading her to abbreviate her name to just one letter for others’ convenience.
“My name is 19 letters long and I had all sorts of variations throughout school and university. Over time, I got tired of having to say my name multiple times, so much so that I shortened it to just a single letter, G,” said the 29-year-old Sydneysider currently living in London.
“Even in my current job which I started recently, I introduced myself as G. But now I regret doing that, because my parents gave me a beautiful and unique name which has a religious and symbolic meaning. It is truly an identity that makes me unique and I believe it is one way that our culture and tradition continue to live on. And to be honest, if people can pronounce difficult Irish names like Saoirse or Siobhan, then I refuse to believe that my name is too difficult to pronounce.”
Both Rajalingam and Ariyakumar praised role models like Ramakrishnan for using their platform to speak about their experiences, which resonate with many South Asian women.
“It makes me so happy that South Asians are being represented especially through up-and-coming young stars like Maitreyi,” said Ariyakumar. “The struggles of having a unique name is just one of the quirks us South Asian girls have had to go through, along with colourism, no dating, and many other facets of a brown girl's life.”