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Dear Abby, Here's What It’s Really Like To Have A 'Foreign' Name In America

Sahaj Kohli
I’m so grateful my parents didn’t feel inclined to make my life “easier” with a more Western name.

It’s tradition for Sikh parents to turn to the Guru Granth Sahib, our holy book, after a child is born and open it to a random page. That page will have a hukamnama ― an order of the day ― and whatever the letter is of the first word of the message should be used as the first letter of the first name of the child. My dad opened the book and immediately saw the word Sahej/Sehej/Sahaj ― meaning peace and tranquility ― and decided to use it for my first name.

I grew up hating my name. Why did my parents have to pick something so hard and so unusual? But the truth is, Sahaj is actually a very common name. I know six people off the top of my head ― both male and female ― with it and while we spell our names using different variations, the meaning and cultural background are the same. We have at least one Indian parent who chose to pass down an entire history and family tree of stories and traditions with a single name ― and that’s damn beautiful.

Still, growing up in the United States with my name hasn’t always been easy. During my entire eighth-grade year, my biology teacher called me Sasha. Instead of actually trying to say my name correctly, she defaulted to a name that was easier for her ― a name that doesn’t even have the same letters in it as mine does. But I never corrected her because I was embarrassed and ashamed. 

My name is my name. If you can’t make the effort to learn it, I consider that an intolerance and disrespect of my background.

Now, though, I will repeat my name and call people out if they keep mispronouncing it. My name is my name. If you can’t make the effort to learn it, I consider that an intolerance and disrespect of my background. Because, truthfully, my name carries all of the weight of all of my ancestors and my immigrant parents who moved to the United States to give me a better life. By upholding Sikh traditions when naming me after I was born in Virginia, they made a statement that they are here to provide their kids more opportunities than they had while reminding us to never, ever forget where we come from. 

I’m so grateful they didn’t feel inclined to make my life “easier” with a more Western name.

I was infuriated when I read a recent “Dear Abby” piece in which the famed advice column now written by Jeanne Phillips responded to a man (identified as “Making Life Easy”) inquiring about whether he should give his child an Indian name like his Indian wife wanted. Phillips, the original “Dear Abby” columnist’s daughter, replied that “Not only can foreign names be difficult to pronounce and spell, but they can also cause a child to be teased unmercifully … Sometimes the name can be a problematic word in the English language. And one that sounds beautiful in a foreign language can be grating in English.”

Indian names aren’t English. They’re not meant to be changed or erased just to make white people feel more comfortable around foreigners. Often when I introduce myself, I am immediately asked if I have a nickname that could be used instead of my full name. Sahaj is two syllables, and even if I could shorten it, I don’t want to. I think it’s pretty.

I often find myself using somewhat ridiculous examples to explain how to pronounce it: “It’s like a hedgefund, sahedgefund, sahaj.” I’ll laugh because it lightens the mood and makes the person I’m talking to more comfortable. I’m working through breaking this habit in order to firmly stand behind my name and everything it stands for.

We’re now at a place where interracial and intercultural marriages are more and more accepted and normalized, especially in Western countries. But just because that’s true, it doesn’t mean anyone should be forced to sacrifice their culture and heritage to adopt another. And it especially doesn’t mean that the someone with a minority identity in a relationship should be expected to adjust their ideals and traditions to their partner’s culture.  

Part of what makes the intermingling of races and cultures and traditions so wonderful is the acceptance, tolerance and mere fact that love truly can’t be confined.

In six months, I am marrying a white man whose family has been in America for generations. While we aren’t sure yet whether we’ll have a family, we believed it was important to discuss the possibility and to talk about how we’d like to integrate both of our cultures into our potential kids’ lives.

I want my kids to understand Punjabi, the language of my parents and my ancestors, know where I ― and they ― come from, and sit with my dad and hear stories about Sikhism. I want them to be comfortable identifying as half-Punjabi and to have the knowledge to teach others about where part of them originated. I also have a few Indian girl names that I love and want to ensure that any kids I may have will have Kaur or Singh for a middle name ― the middle names of all Sikh women and men. My fiancé has never argued against these requests, and why should he? 

Marrying him doesn’t negate where I come from or that our children will be half me.

Dear Abby’s response was racist and problematic, but it’s the man’s question that saddens me the most deeply.

Dear Abby’s response was racist and problematic, but it’s the man’s question that saddens me the most deeply. And I feel bad for his wife ― not only did he use an anonymous advice column to air his concerns, he is totally unaware of how he’s colonizing his Indian wife and his future children. I implore him to take a step back and think about the example he is setting for his unborn child.

Ultimately, I want “Making Life Easy” to know he asked the wrong person for advice. While having a foreign name may seem like a burden to give a child, it’s not. I believed my parents did a terrible thing to me when they gave me my name, but I found my name allowed me to identify with my ancestors and where I come from in ways I couldn’t imagine or understand when I was younger. I now realize it was a gift that gives me the incredible opportunity to teach my American peers about a culture and world of which they are probably ignorant. As American and integrated into Western society as I am, my name remains one of the only things that has kept me grounded in where I came from and how I got here, as I navigate a world unlike that of my parents.

I hope “Making Life Easy” won’t take that experience away from his child. Instead, I want him to worry less about spelling and pronunciation and concentrate on giving his child a name with intense meaning ― something he or she can proudly carry for their whole life and that they can return to whenever they need to remember who they truly are.

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  • This article originally appeared on HuffPost.