Did you also watch The Brady Bunch reruns all summer long when you were a kid? Did I just get the theme song stuck in your head right now? Hehehe…
Saying my name
Last weekend, I posted a Reel on Instagram about how, going forward, I’m going to pronounce my last name correctly. My whole life, I’ve pronounced it as “Mo-Dee” with a hard “D” sound as in “dog”. But really, it’s “Mo-dhee” where the “d” sounds like the “th” in “the”.
Am I a hypocrite?
As a former speech-language pathologist, I used to help people reduce their accents so they would sound more “American” - I would get so annoyed that people who were very intelligible, and who knew multiple languages, were trying to make themselves sound more “American” because that was more “professional”.
Of course, I wasn’t annoyed with them, I was annoyed with colonialism. I was annoyed it was rarely someone from a Western European country who wanted to sound more American. But it made sense…why would someone with a British accent want to sound more American? Even if they might be hard to understand, it takes away from the “prestige” of their accent. Yet plenty of people from South Asia, East Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe seek out this help.
At the same time, I was pronouncing my last name wrong the entire time! I assimilated, but I thought it was so minor. So…I just ignored it.
Did that make me a hypocrite?
I don’t think so. I think it means that I was taught to assimilate. I was taught to not want to bring “dirty” Indian food to school because it smelled. I was taught to make sure I closed my door when my mom fried food so I wouldn’t smell like pooris. I was taught that boys wouldn’t be interested in me because I was too dark and not “American” enough. That’s what this world taught me. It said “people won’t accept you as you are, so you have to do these small things so you can fit in.” So in the large scheme of things, saying “Mo-Dee” instead of “Mo-Dhee” felt pretty minimal.
In the workplace, my dad never pronounced his first name correctly either. His name was Himat, pronounced like the pronoun “him” plus “muth” where the “th” sounds like the “th” in “three”. Yet, he told his work friends to call him “HI” (like hello) plus “mitt”: HI-mitt instead of him-muth.
His name means courage, yet American assimilation still pushed him down.
I AM THE ANSWER MY ANCESTORS NEEDED.
I often say the following to anyone who will listen:
YOU ARE THE ANSWER YOUR ANCESTORS NEEDED.
I type it in ALL CAPS, I say it in ALL CAPS, and I mean it in ALL CAPS.
But, most importantly, I’ve learned that I need to say this to myself because I AM THE ANSWER MY ANCESTORS NEEDED.
Somehow saying this to myself resulted in the realization that, while I won’t ever know everything about my ancestors, I could honor them by no longer assimilating my name to U.S. Empire.
As a former speech-language pathologist, I’m fully aware that not everyone has the ability to pronounce every phoneme or sound. However, that doesn’t mean that they can’t try. Also, my last name and my dad’s first name can easily be pronounced by Americans. Yet we still changed them to sound more American-like.
The more I think about this, the sadder I get. I am sad because my father came to the United States for more opportunities and to support a wife and his soon-to-be family. He tried to follow “the rules”, which meant he had to adjust, assimilate, and Americanize. All of these speak to adhering to power. It was as unspoken as it was spoken.
In the first place we should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the man's becoming in very fact an American, and nothing but an American...There can be no divided allegiance here. Any man who says he is an American, but something else also, isn't an American at all. We have room for but one flag, the American flag, and this excludes the red flag, which symbolizes all wars against liberty and civilization, just as much as it excludes any foreign flag of a nation to which we are hostile...We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language...and we have room for but one soul [sic] loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people.
American nationalism has always been quite the phenomenon. I think it’s a pretty disgusting one, but whatever your position, it is powerful. It is pervasive. It is pure EXCEPTIONALISM. And, by nature, exceptionalism is exclusionary. Exceptionalism is supremacy. Exceptionalism is assimilatory.
Exceptionalism wants you to dismiss your ancestors…or at least hide them. And the only way out of this insidious expectation is to remember them. It is to be their answer. To be their answer means to honor them, remember their names, acknowledge their pain, imagine the ways they were harmed, and to hold that trauma that was passed down to you with the most gentle, loving, care that you can.
For me, this means that I will say my name with the best Sanskrit pronunciation I can. To honor my ancestors, to honor my dad who is not here anymore, and to honor all the days I assimilated growing up.
The (phonological and political) power of assimilation
Ironically, there’s a term in phonology called “assimilation”. According to Wikipedia (and my degree):
Assimilation is a sound change in which some phonemes (typically consonants or vowels) change to become more similar to other nearby sounds. A common type of phonological process across languages, assimilation can occur either within a word or between words.
Essentially, one sound meets another and melts into it. An example of this is when you say “would you” - Americans commonly combine the “d” and “y” sounds into a “j” sound. It sounds more like “woojyu”. That is phonological assimilation, and it occurs because of the power of the sound after it. We don’t say this for “would it” or “would I”. There are more examples on the Wikipedia page too.
So, essentially, mispronouncing my last name is where phonology meets power: social power, economic power, and political power.
And, to an immigrant, survival in a new country with new languages and norms, is everything. This also reminds me of how often women in South Asian cultures are taught to “adjust” to patriarchy. For me, this word “adjust” has so many cringeworthy connotations. By adjusting, assimilating, and Americanizing, you can more easily obtain power. Practically speaking that means owning a home, getting a raise, getting more education, and securing retirement.
So I cannot shame my dad for mispronouncing his first name, and I cannot shame myself either.
In the end…
Since I made this Reel, I have pronounced my last name correctly out of conscious choice and incorrectly out of habit. Every time I mispronounce it, I shame myself a bit. But then I remember that I was subconsciously taught to do this because colonization and white supremacy have powers that are not always conscious. This is a very, very small example of how it pervades and invades our lives every damn day without even realizing it.
I talk about this in a tweet that I embedded in an Instagram post. To think about these invasions consciously is trauma, yet it’s traumatic to ignore it. This is what it means to live in the belly of the beast.
I don’t want to end this “negatively”, but I want to be realistic about what we all face. We face a reality where the carceral state incarcerates police officer, Derek Chauvin, for using carceral force on George Floyd. I have trouble calling anything justice when this will definitely happen again. As an abolitionist, it makes me feel numb. This past week unveiled more unmarked graves of Indigenous Peoples at a residential school in so-called Canada. Assimilation literally kills. It kills culture. It kills languages. It kills connections.
All I can do is try to reclaim as much as I can within my capacity and care for others who wish to do the same. We cannot do this alone. After I posted this Reel, I received SO MUCH support from others, and it made all the difference.
Remember: YOU ARE THE ANSWER YOUR ANCESTORS NEEDED.
What will your answer be?
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