I spent many years of my life hating my name because it was at the center of cruel teasing and bullying that I experienced throughout my adolescence. By the time I got to the third grade, “Cindu the Hindu” was a name I heard almost daily from my classmates. It was not an endearing and loving nickname, but one that was meant to insult and degrade. “Cindu the Hindu” could be regularly heard in the hallways, lunchroom and on the playground during my school-age years. The name Cindu was different and in the predominantly White, middle class suburb that I grew up in, different was deficient. Beyond being made fun of for my name, my teachers and other authority figures were constantly trying to anglicize my name to Cindy. Some of them insisted on calling me Cindy, even when corrected.
My parents understood the perils of having a different name. When my Dad was a young immigrant trying to make it in this country in the late 70’s as an insurance salesman, someone encouraged him to change his name from Thomas Nediyakalayil to “Tom Thomas” so that he would have a better chance at succeeding in his career. My mom had her beautiful South Indian name of “Thankamma” shortened to “Tammy” by her boss when she began her nursing career. Apparently, her real name was an inconvenience because it was too long to fit on her name tag and too difficult for people to pronounce. The practice of changing or shortening one’s name is not something specific to Indian immigrants — it happens across ethnic and racial groups in the United States. Whether we change it ourselves or have it changed for us, the process of anglicizing or “Americanizing” names is an attempt to blend or melt into the American landscape. This strategy for blending in has seemed to work over time for some White immigrant groups, such as the Irish and German, but not for immigrants of color like my parents whose skin color and Indian features outwardly mark their difference.
One of my earliest memories is of my Dad visiting my kindergarten classroom with a box of M &M’s that he brought over from his convenient store to distribute to my class. The reason behind his visit had little to do with passing out candy but instead was about my name. He made this specific visit to correct my teachers and my classmates and inform them that my name was Cindu and not Cindy. There have been many times throughout my life that I wished my Dad hadn’t made that visit because just maybe I would have been known as Cindy in school and could have avoided the years of racist bullying that resulted in the feelings of shame I had for my own name and heritage. I internalized the negative messages I received from my peers and society about my Indian-ness due to the racist experiences I faced at a young age and unfortunately grew up feeling ashamed of who I was.
By the time I was eleven years old, the bullying had gotten so bad, that on the first day of sixth grade I walked up to my homeroom teacher and informed her that I changed my name to Cindy. This was a strategy that I came up with on my own. A survival strategy that I decided would not only allow me to better fit in, but one that would help to suppress my otherness and work to diminish the racist encounters that I frequently experienced. I desperately wanted acceptance, to feel normalized and for my peers to see that I wasn’t so different from them. In my mind, changing the u to a y in my name would help me achieve that. It was almost overnight that my identity morphed into “Cindy.” Cindy was more accepted, made fun of less, and was definitely more confident than Cindu. However, this confidence was complicated and mostly on the surface. The “anglicizing” of Cindu didn’t stop with changing my name. I soon started to adhere to Eurocentric beauty standards — wearing green colored contacts and naturally lightening my hair with lemon juice so that I could look and feel more like my White American friends. I also began to believe the negative messages I subconsciously received about my own culture group and perceived Indian culture as inferior to White American culture. Due to the shame I learned to feel about my difference, I failed to learn my native language (Malayalam), did not enjoy eating the South Indian food my mom cooked (that I now love), and took little interest in my Malayalee culture- all things I deeply regret today.
By the time I got to college, I was a pro at playing the character of “Cindy.” It was almost as if I wasn’t acting anymore — my driver’s license, my high school and college diplomas, my paychecks, my friends, my boyfriend (and now husband) and pretty much the whole world addressed me as Cindy. I had done a great job of internalizing Cindy but no matter how much I tried to conform to the White American norms, my family was first generation Indian immigrants who held very tightly onto their values, traditions, and beliefs; and thankfully never allowed me to fully lose sight of who Cindu was.
While changing my name may have helped me to feel more accepted by my White American peers, my Indian peers viewed me as a sell out and I was often labeled a “coconut” while looked down upon for feeling the shame that I was taught to feel about my ethnicity. The truth is, I don’t think I ever really felt at home with either my White American friends or my Indian ones, and I learned to navigate and live on the border of my Indian-ness and American-ness as many other immigrant children do. Even though my self-inflicted name change helped me to feel more accepted by the dominant culture, it was detrimental to my identity development, to my overall confidence, and to a path of authenticity.
The turning point for me occurred late one night during my last year of graduate school while writing my thesis on second generation Asian Indian identity development. The process of writing my thesis (which was rooted in post colonialism and critical race theory) was a wake up call and helped me to make sense of some of the struggles I experienced growing up as a Brown girl in a very White world. It was through this process that I realized that I had spent so much of my life attempting to adhere to the White American norms as a Brown skinned Indian girl. I finally was able to take a long, hard look in the mirror and see the beauty in my name and let go of any shame I had held onto from the days of being bullied for my Indian-ness. This was a painful and uncomfortable self-realization, but one that was necessary for me to evolve into the person I am today. I quickly decided to end the thirteen year stint of being Cindy. Just as I had walked into my sixth grade homeroom and demanded that my teacher call me Cindy, I walked into the first day of being a graduate teaching assistant for one of my mentors at San Francisco State University and moments before the class began, I asked him to introduce me to the students as “Cindu.”
It’s been roughly 15 years since I reclaimed my real name and in those years, I have gone down a path of self-discovery which has helped me to be confident in my skin, authentic to who I am, and most importantly, allowed me to unlearn the shame I learned to feel about my difference. My road to authenticity was one that had many twists and turns, but today I can wholeheartedly say that I am entirely proud of my Indian name and culture, and I cherish the heritage and family I was born into.
I share my story for the immigrant children and children of color who are growing up today in an America in which racism and xenophobia seem to be normative, an America in which hearing racist rhetoric from our own President is almost expected and accepted. I worry that these children will grow up as I did, being stigmatized for their difference and learn to feel that their difference is deficient. If you are a parent, relative, teacher or neighbor to our immigrant children or children of color, please help them to see the beauty in their difference and to feel pride for who they are and where they came from. Help them to understand that we ALL truly do belong here.