Tag Archives: Goodness Gracious Me

What’s in a Name?

About a year ago 4B introduced me to the British comedy serial “Goodness Gracious Me” and their sketches really are priceless. Many of their sketches explore the conflict and integration between traditional Indian culture and modern British life. And some, like the following, reverse the roles to view the British from an Indian perspective or poke fun at Indian stereotypes.

“Jonathan”

I saw this particular sketch back then, but recently an acquaintance reposted it on facebook and it reminded me of a post I wrote about a year and a half ago called “Pashwa’s Name.” The writing of the original post was inspired by the fact that many of my family members were finally writing P’s name correctly on Christmas cards after 6 years of crazy spellings like: “all sorts of variations, often with “Os” and “Zs” and “Ss” and “Hs” (letters that he doesn’t have in his name at all!) … My dad used to write his name as “Pazz” for several years, while [my Grandmother used the name] “Pashwa” which [she] still kinda calls him.”

The first time my mother met him they went through this exchange:

Mom: “Does your name translate into something in English?”

P: [honestly ponders this question for a few minutes…] “Well, I guess you could say light or maybe bright light.

Mom: [looks a bit puzzled, this was not how she expected him to answer the question. The look on her face was absolutely priceless. She was thinking something like “Patrice” is the French form of “Patrick,” and “P” is the Nepali version of “Peter”] “Huh? Light? I was thinking Peter or Paul or something like that. Don’t you have an English name?”

P: “No, I guess I’m just P_______ or you can call me P__ for short.”

The “Jonathan” sketch also reminds me of my new freshmen students during international orientation. At one point we had them stand up and introduce themselves, and there were quite a few students who introduced themselves by English names instead of their original more “ethnic” sounding names.

This happens a lot with Chinese students, who are often advised by educational consultants back home to pick an English name since many Chinese sounds are butchered by our American tongues. From experience I know that Burmese students tend to have particularly challenging names—not necessarily long names like Thai or Sri Lankan (I have ten Thai students this year and the average number of letters in their last names is 16!)—but Burmese names tend to have strings of letters you don’t expect to be next to each other—this year I have one student whose first name is Hnin Pwint. I tried several times to say it properly, and the poor girl kept correcting me, and finally she said she goes by the name “Snow.” (Also kind of interesting, since I don’t think it snows in Myanmar).

One of our new Nepali students also has a challenging name—Kshitij. I had to check with some friends before I met him to make sure I was saying it correctly—it is pronounced kind of like chee-teej, but when he stood up to introduce himself to the new students he proudly told the audience his name was…

“Ken.”

When I got home that night I told the P family that one of my Nepali students didn’t want to use his Nepali name, and decided to call himself by an American one.

“Why would you do that?” P asked, “Having an ethnic name is kind of cool. It’s different. It makes you stand out.”

I was a little surprised by P’s answer, since his name can and has been butchered as well, however I also agree. My name is “ethnic” in that it is mostly used by Irish-Americans (or perhaps other Irish-in-diaspora communities*), and although the combination of my first name and last name is quite common within these communities (if you google it, you will get pages of “CCs” that are not me, and as the original C____C____@gmail.com email account I get emails for the wrong “CCs” all the time!) it’s not that common of a name in general. Whereas I had a truckload of “Jennifers,” “Elizabeths,” “Marys,” and “Sara(h)s” as friends growing up, it wasn’t until high school that I met another “C” at an event I attended. During my school age years I don’t think I could have dealt with being in a room and someone calling out “C!” and more than one of us turning around to ask, “What?”

If/When P and I decide to have kids, I think we are probably in agreement that we would want to name them something  “different” but we will have to keep in mind that it should be pronounceable by both my family and his.

So I guess no “Jonathans” or “Kshtijs” for us.

* I wanted to quickly note that all my life I thought of my name as very “Irish” not “Irish American” until our (real) Irish friend RH told me that no one in Ireland is actually named “C.” It’s a noun in Ireland, and has been appropriated by Irish-in-diaspora descendants as an “Irish” name. It really rattled my world when I found out that my supposedly super-Irish-name was really inauthentic… although I guess not really, since I am not really “Irish” but “Irish American.” If it is an “Irish American” name, I guess it actually is authentic in my case.

More “Nepali” than a “Real” Nepali?

Let me start out with a video clip… thanks to “Blonde Bahu” who recently introduced me to “Goodness Gracious Me” a British-Indian sketch comedy group from the 90s.

Phew, I’m not that bad (at least I hope not! ha!), but as the saying goes what makes humor funny is that it comes with a little “kernel of truth.” It has been discussed on this and other blogs before about how foreigners (non-South Asians) are sometimes more interested (perhaps “enthusiastic” is the better word) in embracing aspects of South Asian culture than a native South Asian living abroad might be. Of course this clip is a highly exaggerated version (perhaps there are people out there that go that “native”) but I’m sure we all do it to some degree or another…

(Although, on a side note, sometimes I feel like my family thinks I act like the person in this video—I promise you, I don’t—but I’m still pretty sure that my participation and interest in Nepali culture weirds them out a bit and anything “different” gets hyperbolized in their minds and blown a little out of proportion).

Anyway, one such example (in my own life) of the “outsider enthusiast” versus the “insider non-enthusiast” (for lack of a better term) is the female fasting festival of Teej… I discussed this back in August (you can re-read the post here). Gori Girl left a thought provoking comment on the post:

I think it’s a very interesting (and important) point you bring up about the outsider/insider perspective on “borderline” (not the right word, but I’m inarticulate at the moment) cultural practices.

I feel like many of the younger South Asians I meet – both men and women – are trying to distance themselves from cultural practices they grew up with because they see them as unfeminist or “too ethnic” – and then they’re bemused (or sometimes offended) by the Western significant others of South Asians (almost always women) trying to bring these practices into their lives.

In some ways the tone of these conversations/remarks remind me of the generation split between the “original” feminists – people of my mother’s generation – and today’s younger women. The older feminists, I think, felt they had to work outside the home, be successful in business while raising a family, etc, in order to prove that they were just as capable as men. In contrast, I feel like a lot of women of my generation feel like there’s nothing to prove, and thus have no problem with quitting work to raise a family. I suspect South Asians might see a similar reversal to acceptance of various rites in a generation or two to a more balanced approach.

Other examples I’ve seen between “outsider” enthusiasts vs. Nepali community non-enthusiasts: I’ve been in situations where we have hosted a Nepali oriented event (such as P’s Bratabandha) and only the Americans showed up in sari while the South Asians were wearing jeans or other American clothes. Likewise, in our household it is usually me that encourages P to keep up with different festival traditions (“Hey! It’s Lakshmi Puja… let’s light diya candles and draw Lakshmi feet on the floor!”) because I find these traditions interesting, different and fun, and I want to learn about them myself so I can explain to potential children someday what the different festivals are all about, and the stories behind them, and I want to take part in the cultural experience too.

In my opinion, when you are living in a dominant culture (the US for us), you have to work harder at accentuating the non-dominant culture if you want to keep a balance. If you don’t go out of your way to acknowledge the passing of events, or cultural traditions, it is easier for non-dominant cultural processes to get lost in the mix of daily life. It doesn’t mean you have to wear salwaar kameez everyday and tikka around town and speak in a fake South Asian accent like the woman in the video, but it’s okay to go to your significant other’s cousin’s wedding in a sari if you want to, why not?

So I just wanted to take a moment– maybe start a discussion about where others might see these types of things in their own lives, perhaps laugh at ourselves a little (yeah—I like getting dressed up in Nepali dress when I get the chance for weddings and parties, even if I have to encourage my neighbors to do so too so I don’t look a little silly), and remember that being in an intercultural relationship is all about compromise and finding the right balance.