That’s Not My Name

“Sana” means “praise.”

My name, Sana, correctly pronounced as “Suh-nah,” is often said by others with an anglicized pronunciation of “Sah-nah.” Though the difference may seem small, it carries a significant impact.  I was named “Sana” because it means “praise” in Urdu, an Indian language. Also, though I wasn’t named Sana for these additional meanings, it also translates to “radiance” in Arabic” and “healthy” in Spanish (I lucked out, right?). My name is an important part of my Indian-American identity and helps me feel more connected to my Indian culture as a first-generation American.    

My Achie (father’s mother) and I circa 1995. I get my curly hair from her; can you tell?

I wanted to “fit in.”

In elementary school I vividly remember learning that my name was said differently by my American classmates and teachers than it was by my Indian family members and friends.  It didn’t bother me at the time, but rather taught me that it was easier to introduce myself with the incorrect pronunciation than coach people through how to say it correctly.  Also, as I was an incredibly shy child, it felt easier to accept the wrong pronunciation of my name rather than correct yet another substitute teacher who butchered it.  

“Say-na”

“Sahnuh”

“Okay, I’m gonna say this wrong…”

Already feeling out of place as often the only Indian-American kid in my classes, with my “ethnic” lunches opposed to “lunchables” (ha, remember those?), drawing attention to my “un-American” sounding name was something I avoided. Accepting the Americanized pronunciation of my name helped me feel more like I fit in — helped me feel more American.   

My Nani (mother’s mother), sister, and I at Briarwood Mall in Ann Arbor, MI circa 2004.

I accepted my “Americanized” name.

To this day, I introduce myself with the anglicized pronunciation of “Sah-na” without thinking about it.  I’ve come to associate the proper pronunciation of my name with how I’m referred to by my family, relatives, and others from the South Asian community for whom the pronunciation of my name comes naturally.  My husband, though he’s not Indian, has always encouraged me to say my name correctly.  It’s funny that doing so feels strange since I’ve gone my whole life feeling like my name was too difficult for the White American tongue pronounce! 

For those whom I’ve introduced myself to as “Sah-nah,” please know that I don’t fault you at all.  Learning to take pride in the native pronunciation of my name, and get comfortable with correcting people, is something I’m embracing.  I appreciate your willingness to respect and support me in that.

I am embracing that my name, “Sana,” is “American” simply because I am American. It is Indian-American and I take pride in the rich meaning and culture behind it.

My Nana (mother’s father) and I in India circa 1999.

My parents changed their names.

The experience of adjusting my name to suit the American tongue did not begin with me. After my parents immigrated to the United States from India in 1994, they soon realized that their names were difficult for most Americans to pronounce. My mother, named “Smriti,” meaning “remembrance” in Sanskrit, adopted her nickname of “Simmi” as her primary name. Similarly, my father, named Sundar,” meaning “beauty” in Hindi, changed the spelling of his name to “Sunder” to minimize its mispronunciation. Both of my parents have always been patient and forgiving with those who butcher their names. Assimilating as immigrants in America asked many things of them, one of which was to alter their names in order to adjust more easily. Though they lost the native spellings and pronunciations of their names in the United States, they’ve also come to accept various “versions” of their names while celebrating the duality of their Indian-American culture.

My family and I in our home in TN circa 1998.

Be curious. Be respectful. Be humble.

If you’re unsure of how to say someone’s name, be respectful, curious, and humble in asking them how to pronounce it and, more generally, ask them what they’d like to be called.  Whether it’s the native or anglicized version of their name — or a different name altogether — respect the names that people most identify with.  Don’t expect them to alter their names just for your convenience. 

Have you ever experienced discomfort with others not being able to say your name? Or, have you been on the other side of it with feeling uncomfortable saying someone’s name? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

Follow me on Instagram and Twitter @ curly_therapist for more inclusive content.

7 Comments Add yours

  1. A lovely reflection! Don’t even get me started with how my given name is frequently massacred, but I don’t mind because I appreciate the effort people take, and I gently offer them the correct pronunciation.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and sharing, Mom. I know both you and Dad have actually changed the spellings of your names to accommodate the anglicized pronunciations. I think Samira’s name, though longer than the three of ours, has fared the best with its American pronunciation! Haha

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Actually, both Dad and I took the liberty of tweaking the spelling of our names very much on our own! The spelling is a widely accepted variation. Given the diversity within India, it is not uncommon to find spelling variations of the same name!

        Like

  2. Theadra Fleming says:

    Geez ….I definitely prefer to use the original pronunciation of your name…I didn’t know!

    Like

  3. ashleyleia says:

    When my great grandfather immigrated to Canada from Lebanon, he anglicized his first name and picked a random English surname to go by. At least things have come a little ways since then.

    Like

  4. Tanvi Gupta says:

    I LOVE this post. I am still dealing with whether or not I want to accept my original name or stick to my anglicized name as I have myself given some my anglicized name, and others my “desi” name. It makes it especially hard when I think about using social media to promote my business and introducing myself to a wide audience.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Tanvi! Thank you so much for your comment. I also go back and forth as well, and am coming to terms with my comfort level of allowing my anglicized name in some contexts while pushing back against it in others. It can truly be a difficult issue to grapple with!

      Like

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