“Congratulations, Sinoia Wadwhan”. Instantly, my face goes scarlet as I read the words sprawled across my 5th -grade graduation certificate, the limp paper threatening to crinkle under the grip of my sweaty palms.
“Don’t worry, Siona, we’ll go to the main office tomorrow and ask them to get it changed,” my mother’s voice rings gently in my ear as she brushes a strand of frizzy brown hair away from my face. The rest of my family members burst out into laughter when I show them the jumbled letters that intended to spell out my name. I laugh along with them, but inside, my heart plummets all the way down to the sparkly gold sandals my parents bought me especially for this day. In my 5th grade world, this meant way more than just a simple misspelling or a regular occurrence I would come to expect as I got older. This crumpled piece of paper was the most important thing in my life until then. It meant I had made it, I had finally graduated and was no longer a ‘baby elementary schooler.’ I clenched my fists, five years at this school and they couldn’t even get my name right? The shame from the misspelled words prickled like needles beneath my skin. I watched my classmates thrust their own certificates gleefully in the faces of their parents, and I knew this had never happened to any of them. All of their names had been written perfectly—with familiarity—in just a few elegant strokes of the teacher’s pen. But I was different. My name was different.
The truth is that, even now, I can barely pronounce it myself. I didn’t grow up speaking Hindi like my parents, and my last name falls far outside of the familiar patterns of consonants I have been trained to speak in. My colonized tongue is in a constant tug-o-war, struggling to thread basic syllables together despite my mother’s constant reminders.
“You’re doing it all wrong,” she explains. “It’s supposed to be a mix of the ‘th’ and ‘dh’ sound… s and make it breathy, ‘Wa-DH-aw-an.’” My mom, on the other hand, can say it effortlessly—and it isn’t even a part of her name! One would think that after all those years of Hindi classes I should at least be able to pronounce my own last name. But alas, the searing flames of shame never cease to erupt across my face whenever someone asks me how to say it.
However as I grew up and began to connect more towards my identity, my attitude towards my name changed. I went to India for the first time in two years that summer before my freshman year. The trip reminded be of my Indian heritage and the parts of it that I used to hold so close to my heart. Dancing my heart out to upbeat Hollywood in my grandmother's house, my sister and I eating gulab jamun, a sticky ball shaped desert from the local bakery, giggling hysterically as the sticky syrup dribbles down our chins. Best of all everyone shared the same last name. They announced “Wadhawan” proudly and for the first time in a while I felt proud to carry a name that so many of my cherished relatives had. It made me feel close to my culture and my family.
Since that trip, I've slowly been working to embrace my name. I want to embrace it. Embrace its oddity and complexity. Embrace the chaos of oddly strung syllables that can never quite roll off the white tongue. My name is a symbol of my heritage. It is vibrant: a little pocket of individuality that has colored my world with thick, messy paint strokes.
Cover Photo Source: Medium