Updated: Mar 12
Dear Asian Youth,
On the journey to appreciating my South Asian roots, one of the biggest obstacles I faced was embracing my “cultural” name. While this might sound like a simple task to you, my name has always been a point of frustration in my life, with people constantly mixing up the pronunciation, associating my name with other words, and spelling my name wrong on countless letters and documents. I have always been aware of such errors, and now that I am reflecting on how much pain these mistakes have caused me, I realize how much pent-up jealousy I had for those with much more “simple” names, and the amount of hate I had for my own. I also never saw the connection between my annoyance for my name and how I felt about my culture, which was a part of my identity I would hide. These past few months, I have been able to meet other people who share a variety of colourful names, and I have come to the realization that my frustration should not be directed at my name, but rather to the people who mispronounce and misspell it.
My name is Prerna Kulkarni (prer-naa kul-car-nee), and I have been mistaken for a Prema, Prena, Perna, Purma, Prerana, Pearna (yes, like the fruit), and Pruna Kulkami. While I am not one to become sensitive over trivial topics, my name is important to me and it is a part of my identity. My name inspires me and encourages me to be comfortable with who I am. It tells me that I don’t have to “blend in.” Looking back, I realize that I had gotten to the point where I would let people pronounce my name wrong and pass the incorrect pronunciation onto other people. I would simply laugh it off. I would think to myself: it’s only a joke—don’t make such a big deal about it. Sometimes, I would hear my peers make fun of the pronunciation of my name, and if I displayed that I was upset, they would tell me that they were “just kidding.” I wondered to myself that if they were “just kidding,” why was I hurting inside? Now as I reflect upon this situation, I wish I had defended my thoughts more. I realize that in the future, if something makes me uncomfortable, I should be confident in myself and express how I feel.
It wasn’t just my peers, however—adults would also mix up the pronunciation of my name. I’ve had teachers hand me assignments with my name crossed out in red ink and rewritten on the page’s left-handed corner. If this had occurred only once in the beginning of the year, I would have merely shrugged it off. However, this happened repeatedly throughout my middle and high school years.
The purpose of this letter is not to call out everyone who has pronounced my name wrong, but to spread awareness on what my name means to me in the same way your name has a meaning to you. In Hindi, my name translates to “inspiration,” and once I learned this, I realized that my name is pretty, colourful, and so deeply cultural. When I close my eyes, I can envision my name—I can see the pink, orange, red, and green powdered faces during the Hindu festival of Holi, a celebration of colours that rejoices new beginnings by marking the transition from winter to spring. I can hear the words of Mahatma Gandhi ringing in my ears: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” I can feel the pride raising the hairs across my arms. After years of planning how I would go to court and change my name to one with a simpler spelling and pronunciation, I now understand how special my name is, and how I should not change myself to fit the standards of other people.
I see the constant mispronunciation and misspelling of my name as a direct blow to the culture that has raised me to become the person that I am today. I am tired of people telling me that my name would sound better with an extra ‘a’; that it would be easier to remember if they didn’t pronounce one of the ‘r’s. I am frustrated when people try to associate my name with a more common one; deciding to call me “Brianna” or “Raina” instead of “Prerna.” I wish I realized earlier that I am the only one who has power over my identity. And to the people who I have heard such things from: my name belongs to me. And the word “me” does not include the letter ‘u.’
As a my-name-is-not-on-a-keychain type of person, I am completely aware that my name might look and sound complex. However, if you dedicate one minute of your time into learning the pronunciations and spellings of names, you would not only receive much more respect from me, but from every other person you’ll meet later on in life. Your effort shows your appreciation for that person and their culture and is similar to saying the words, “You are valid too.”
I have noticed that, while stereotypes and labels have become prevalent in today’s society, a name is more than a word that people call you by. Your name will never dissolve into a category or a standard. Your name will always be a unique and special part of your life, which is why it is something to take pride in and celebrate!
And to all the people with “difficult” names reading this: do not let yourself be put down because others are not aware of the spelling and pronunciation of your name. Instead, educate them. There are billions of names across the world, all unique, all valid, and all defining of our identities. Now that we are in a time where our individualities should be expressed more than ever, never let a person take control of who you are and how you pronounce or spell your own name. You are a strong and beautiful human, and the only way to facilitate a positive mindset is to appreciate the parts of your identity that are undoubtedly you, starting with your name—an attribute of yourself that deserves all the love in the world.
- Prerna Kulkarni