Naming Your Kid: A Guide for Immigrants

November 02, 2016


There’s a sort of formula to it, a series of decisions you have to make. First, decide whether or not you want to give the kid a traditional name. Say you’re thinking of naming your baby girl either Alex or Khadija. You have two routes from here.

  1. Choose the less traditional, Western option because you want to cushion your child from the malice of the world - Alex is safer than Khadija. There are three other Alexes in her third grade class, and the other children won’t struggle with her name. Substitute teachers won’t trip over her what to call her, and when it’s time for her to find jobs, her resume won’t invoke any stereotypical image in her employer’s head. Keep in mind that you will have to worry about whether not Alex will lose her culture. Her aunties and uncles might not be able to pronounce her name because the short “a” doesn’t come easily to their tongues. She might begin to act like an “Alex,” an American. Maybe she’ll stop speaking her native language and she’ll hang exclusively with Jacobs and Madisons and Emmas because she’ll identify so strongly with her name. Or maybe she’ll fight Alex and struggle to remind every Jacob, Madison, and Emma that she is part of a beautiful culture. You’ll wonder where her loyalties lie. Will Alex struggle to prove to her heritage that she hasn’t assimilated or will her allegiance fall towards the dominant culture?
  2. Choose the more traditional, Islamic route and your girl might have to correct her name every time someone says it. It’s a soft k not a hard k, she’ll say for the umpteenth time that week. Eventually she’ll stop because she’ll get tired of telling everyone their pronunciation of her name is too harsh. She’ll figure that jobs won’t hire her in a country that fears anything too Muslim. Maybe she’ll wish that her name was Jacob or Madison or Emma. She’ll tire of Khadija and shorten it altogether for convenience. She’ll go by “Kay,” belittling her parents, her background, and the prophet’s (pbuh) first wife.

Regardless of her name, you’ll worry about her sense of belonging. Will she be happy entertaining these two sides of her identity, or will she reject one and choose the other? How will everyone else receive her? Mispronouncing names, anglicizing names, butchering names, westernizing, assimilating names is nothing new: white colonialists have renamed Africans as slaves in America, white colonialists renamed American Indians, and immigrants at Ellis Island have changed their own names to assimilate to American customs. Names like Lone Bear became Lon Brown, and Lukrecia became Laurie. Name alterations were and are another form of asserting power over people to set a dominant cultural norm. Some Bengalis have two names: one for formal purposes such as school, work, and new people that you meet - called a bhalo nahm or a “good name” and one for the closest family members, a pet name called your dakh nahm, or a “calling name.” Monika is my “good name” and Pinky is my “calling name” (there’s some wonderful literature on this if you’re interested). It’s almost too shockingly obvious how the two names represent the dual identity that, I, and many immigrants have. Monika, of course, is the American and more visible side of me. I used to go by Monika up until late high school when I realized that the name embodied everything that I wasn’t. I didn’t grow up around the same food as my classmates, the same music, the same language, often the same religion. Despite my many efforts to conform, I simply wasn’t an American. My dad chose Monika because he knew I’d have a better life in America with the name. It was a pretty smart name on his part - fairly Western and not too unlike what a person would name his or her child in Bangladesh. These days many families are adopting Western names for their children. My father and my mother probably had a different idea in mind when calling my brother Mohammed Islam as his bhalo nahm and Shuvo as his dakh nahm. He’s older so they might have been less concerned with what Americans thought of “Mohammed Islam” and more concerned with staying true to Islamic traditions. He later changed it because he was tired of sounding like a terrorist - his words. Can’t really blame him though when we see anti-Muslim bigotry on our own Grounds. It’s not fair that I show my Bengaliness in ways that seem more American than they do Bengali, but it doesn’t mean that I reject my culture. Nowadays, I don’t dress in salwar kameeses, I don’t listen to Bengali music or watch Bengali dramas, I don’t wear the hijab, hell, I can barely speak the language sometimes. Brown aunties at parties stare at me as I stutter through a conversation in my native tongue. I can feel them judging me, I can feel them thinking “aw this girl doesn’t know who she is.” And maybe that was true at one point. When I was ten, I cried because a boy named Carlos called me Pinky instead of Monika. He stuck his finger in my face and said, “Hey, Pinky” and I hated it. Did I hate it because he reduced a Bengali name to an appendage on his hand? Was it too foreign, meaning I was too foreign? I couldn’t put words to it as a child, but I wouldn’t let classmates catch wind of my dakh nahm because it wasn’t a good, American name. While I used to detest the jokes about Pinky and the Brain, Pinky from Pacman, Pinky like the finger, I’ve learned to embrace them. Now, I introduce myself with “Pinky, like the finger.” Culture is fucking dope and I’m allowed a little humor in my cross-cultural understanding of myself. Being Bengali is awesome. That’s why I’d like to think that my brother, although he did reject Mohammed Islam, changed his legal name to his calling name - to Shuvo. At least I was fortunate enough to have a name people are familiar with. People have shortened Shuvo to Sam because it’s easier to say, but it’s worth the constant correcting if it means retaining at least some of his Bengaliness. We honor where we come from. I go by Pinky instead of Monika because I respect Bangladeshi heritage, even if it doesn’t look like it from the outside.

Letter From the Editor