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Amelia or Maya: What’s in a Name?

BY AMELIA ALAM (staff writer)


Image: https://www.starrosesandplants.com/plants/elle/


Shakespeare’s character Juliet, from the play Romeo and Juliet, once said, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” This particular sentiment has held true for me throughout my entire life, especially as a Bengali-Canadian girl growing up in North America.


As someone who is Bengali, I grew up having two names. Most people know me as “Amelia.” That’s what my teachers, friends, and anyone else that isn’t my family, calls me. But at home, I only answer to “Maya,” my daak naam. A daak naam is a word that literally translates into a “call name” or a “nickname” in English. It’s a name used by close friends and family that almost all Bengali people have. We also have bhalo naam, which translates into “good name,” and it is a name used on all legal documents. When I was younger, I didn’t know what the words bhalo naam and daak naam meant nor why I had to constantly switch between “Amelia” and “Maya” with different people.


“It’s your culture, Maya,” my parents would say.


And then, I would either respond with:

“Well, it’s weird.”

OR

“That’s so stupid. All this does is make my life more complicated!”

OR

“I hate my culture!”


These reactions may seem harsh at first, but I did find it really frustrating to be switching between these two names as a child. I would have to explain to my school friends why my mother was calling me “Maya,” then I would have to face their confused looks. Some of them would outright say to my face that it was weird. Obviously, I can’t really blame them for this, as they were all under the age of seven, and we were all just kids being kids. But still, I can’t pretend that it didn’t affect the way I viewed this part of myself. My names were a never-ending annoyance. Something to be seen as “too weird.” Something to be embarrassed about.


Eventually, around my tween years, I realized that I preferred my daak naam a lot more than I preferred my bhalo naam. I just found the name “Amelia” to be too… White. And I clearly wasn’t White. Thus, being called “Amelia” by my peers just started to feel weird, but in a different way. Being called “Amelia” at school made me feel like I was “hiding” my daak naam from everybody, which in turn made me feel like I was hiding my culture. In truth, I was.


I don’t think it’s a lie to say that a lot of first generation POC living in North America and other parts of the Western World have dealt with internalized racism. In my experience, I haven’t really experienced any aggressive or “in-your-face” type of racism in the past, which I’m extremely grateful for. I have experienced little things, though.


Microaggressions, lack of/bad representation in the media, and a Euro-centric education curriculum in history class are just to name a few. Even smaller things have an impact too, like how some of my own family members commonly use words like “American” or “Canadian” as a synonym for “White” instead of using them as words used to describe a diverse number of people of different skin tones (including my own) belonging to two diverse countries.


It wasn’t until seventh grade when I first experienced outward racism, and that racism wasn’t even directed towards me. It was just a few boys in my grade imitating and making fun of the Indian accent. They continued to do this loudly almost every day throughout the entire year (until the COVID-19 pandemic sent us all home for the rest of the year). Then, they would talk to me normally like an acquaintance, as if I was expected to just not care that they were making fun of my culture. I always wanted to stand up to them and tell them that what they were doing was wrong, but I was too insecure at that time. I cared too much about what others thought of me.


I think that this experience in seventh grade became the breaking point of my internalized racism. I remember crying for hours about this, not knowing what to do. I kept telling myself that I was being “over-emotional” and “too sensitive.” But deep down, I knew that letting these boys continue their racism was wrong. And worse, as I started talking to other people in my class, I found out that they weren’t only being insensitive to South Asian culture, they were also making fun of others. It was around March, when the news of the coronavirus was starting to spread, when my friend had told me that these same boys were starting to insinuate racist implications about how Chinese people were to blame for the spread of the coronavirus. After hearing this from my friend, I thought to myself that enough was enough. I was finally going to stand up to them. I thought it all out. I had prepared exactly what I was going to say and when exactly I was going to say. I was going to do this.


Then, my province went into a shut-down due to COVID-19. I lost my chance.


I decided that I was going to spend my time during the lockdown, reflecting on myself and my cultural identity. I realized that the internalized racism that I experienced wasn’t “conscious” or what most would imagine it to be like. I truly believe, consciously and with all my heart, that everyone is meant to be treated equally, regardless of skin colour. In fact, I’m extremely passionate about calling out racism whenever I see it, educating other people about racism and working to end it in my own communities. I even started asking some of my close friends to call me “Maya” instead of “Amelia” because “Maya” was the name that felt most like home.


However, no matter how hard I tried, none of that stopped me from experiencing a tiny tinge of embarrassment or shame or awkwardness that came with outwardly displaying my culture every once in a while. It didn’t stop me from feeling like a total fake after going back and forth from hiding my daak naam from others to deliberately asking my friends to call me “Maya.” I mean, who am I pretending to be? I’m not connected to my culture. I don’t even speak the language. How can I even call myself a real Bengali? I’m too whitewashed. I’m too Westernized. After the incident in seventh grade, I would start to tell myself these things because deep down, I thought they were true. I realized that throughout my childhood, I was too busy pushing away my culture, trying so hard to fit in with others, trying to be “Canadian enough,” without even knowing, consciously, that I was doing this. I realized that I was never going to be “Canadian enough” for people and that I should just stop trying altogether. I realized that while I was never going to be “Canadian enough,” I wasn’t Bengali enough either. I spent so much time feeling ashamed of my culture, I never really tried to indulge myself in it. By now, every other Brown kid my age knew how to speak their family’s language, while I was fumbling over understanding the basics. I knew nothing about my culture, my history, my religion, and my language. It was humiliating and I hated myself for it.


I began to express my deep frustration with myself through art. I began listening to music by South Asian and other POC artists, I started reading articles and books with other people’s experiences around this topic, I started writing poetry, and even wrote my own one-act play inspired by my experiences. It certainly helped. A lot.


For instance, here is an excerpt of a poem I wrote (it was inspired by a song called “Once Kings” by Riz Ahmed):


Amelia doesn’t know Maya

Maya doesn’t know herself

Appreciating, preserving, assimilating, repressing

Call it what you will,

Whose wish should I fulfil?


Amelia doesn’t know Maya

Maya doesn’t know herself

Frustration, celebration, destruction, jubilation,

Walking through time

Feeling self-hatred

Ancestors:faded


Amelia doesn’t know Maya

Maya doesn’t know herself

Confronting, deflecting, pushing or pulling

Voice mishandled

Dreams cancelled

Blood full of stories becoming untangled


It took me a lot of time, and a lot of reflection, and a lot of art, but eventually, I began to forgive myself for my past mistakes. I began to realize that even if I wasn’t totally knowledgeable about every single aspect of my culture, it was still my culture and I should still be proud to belong to it. I realized that, despite the awkwardness that might arise explaining my two names to people, difference is actually a good thing. I even found out that many other cultures use a similar type of naming system (with two first names) too! Sharing our cultures and our cultural differences with each other just makes us more interesting human beings.


I’ve realized, who cares if I use two names? I’ve become fine with either. Having an English bhalo naam doesn’t make me any less Brown. Having a second name in general doesn’t make me weird or any less normal than other people with only one name. It’s just a part of my life that makes me unique. Well actually, that last part may be a lie—there are millions of other Bengali people living in the world, each with their own bhalo naam and daak naam. But, coming back to that iconic Shakespeare quote, regardless of what name people call me, I’ll still always be me. And, if I was a rose, I’d smell just as sweet. :)

Sharing culturally diverse stories to educate, inspire, and empower others

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