BY AKSHARA RAMASAMY
Three syllables and seven letters, my name instills fear into those who attempt to pronounce it, embarrassment into those who mispronounce it, and a sense of accomplishment into those who “correctly” pronounce it. It was as if there was a bottomless hat filled with infinite pronunciations of my name: reach in and there will be a different answer each time. The sad truth: my name became my greatest identity crisis.
Being a first-generation immigrant, my name and identity were always lost in translation. At home, I was “Ak-shuh-ra”—fluent in my mother tongue and fascinated by Indian culture. At home, I gave justice to my ethnic name, so articulate and beautiful in my native Tamil.
School, however, was a completely different story. At school, my scarlet letter “A” burned on my chest, bringing me nothing but shame. At school, my name branded me as an alien. At school, I carried the burden of the problematic, ethnic “Ak-shuh-ra.” Each mispronunciation was a continuous, relentless cycle of waves. I had to either sink and spend my public life constantly labeled as “different” or swim and put a stop to it all. I decided to swim.
What seemed like a normal first day of ninth grade turned into my worst nightmare when Mrs. Stewart announced the words “roll call.” At first, the names on the roster appeared familiar.
Ashley. Matthew. Mikayla.
She got to the “P” and “Q” part of the alphabet, still nothing out of the ordinary.
Ryan. Emma. Jack.
She approached the extraordinary.
Beads of sweat formed on her head and the smile disappeared from my poor victim’s mouth. I tried to salvage her honor and answer “here” before she could even try anything, but it was too late.
“Is Awk-shi-ra here?” she said hopefully.
“Here,” I say, blushing scarlet and drawing yet another name from the hat.
“Did I pronounce that correctly?” she asked earnestly.
Every part of me wanted to correct her by saying “Ak-shuh-ra.” I wanted to serve as the inspiring idol to my Indian-Americans—to encourage them to be proud of their Indian heritage outside of the home. But, that did not happen.
Instead, I smiled and said, “You pronounced it perfectly.”
Computers and auto-correct programs only continue to push “Ak-shuh-ra” out of existence. Red lines form beneath Akshara Ramasamy in every Word document, further invalidating “Ak-shuh-ra.” As I reinvented and reintroduced myself as “Awk-shi-ra,” I suppressed the Indian in me and allowed my American side to dominate.
For months, I perfected my “where’s your name from” answer and led the perfect double life. In fact, my mother even asked me to tutor a fellow high school student in Tamil. As I passionately taught her the thousand years of language and heritage, I not only recognized the hidden pride and love that resurfaced from my voice, but also the hypocrisy. While my student went out of her way to learn more about her culture, her teacher concealed that part of herself from others. The student had become the master.
If I could rewire my brain to read, speak, and write in two languages, why couldn’t I train myself to thrive in two countries? Two cultures. Two identities. The opportunity of amalgamation was always right in front of my face, but I was just too focused on the black and white to see the gray.
For years, I felt cursed. Trapped by the inconvenience and embarrassment of being unique, burdened by the name and culture that I had forgotten was beautiful. Today, my name is more than a mere ethnic label. Rather, it is a responsibility—a reminder of the honorable Indian heritage I should proudly uphold. Now, “Ak-shuh-ra” co-exists with “Awk-shi-ra” in public. I understand that I am not just Indian or just American, but both. Akshara: three syllables and seven letters, not a harbinger of shame, but rather, a symbol of my identity.