It was my first day of second grade at a new school, where I spent much of my time saying and spelling my name to my new classmates: A-K-S-H-I-T-I. As fate would have it, my childhood bully, a jolly, loud, boisterous boy with a kind smile and a whip-smart tongue, put my lesson to good use. He soon became the first and only person to write a nursery rhyme just for me:
“Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream,
if you see an A-K-S-H-I-T-I, don’t forget to scream!”
Yes, as you may have noticed, my name has the word SHIT in it. As the school years rolled on, my reactions to the kids, and eventually teenagers, who pointed this spelling fact out to me were different on different occasions—I grimaced politely, smiled conspiratorially, seethed in quiet rage, or beat ‘em to the punch by loudly saying “Yes, my name does have the word shit in it.” Yet somehow, over the years, people continued to take joy in that stupid spelling, and I continued to feel terrible about it.
Big deal, you’re thinking. Every kid gets made fun of for something. It’s a part of normal childhood development. Get over it. Well, fair enough. It took me 10 years or so, but I reached the point where I could proudly say to my high school friends— “You know, all those times people made fun of the spelling of my name, it made me stronger.” It all began with the proud declaration that in Sanskrit, my name means imperishable. So words literally can’t bring me down; thoughts like these were one of the many clichés that have served as a soothing balm for my spelling-inflicted wounds.
It will not surprise you to learn that my relationship with my beautifully intricate Sanskrit name did not get easier when I arrived at Columbia, a school in a country where people only use about half the phonemes that I did growing up. After a few years of slow enunciations and intense frustrations, I finally made the life-altering decision to go by my last name, Vats, instead of my first name, Akshiti. Starbucks baristas have begun to think I’m an idiot, but they have also managed to misspell Vats, so you lose some and you lose some more, I guess.
Fast forward to 2019. On the first day of a yoga class that I am currently taking at Columbia, I walked into the dimly lit yoga studio with mild feelings of trepidation—the brand of existential dread that overcomes me when someone tries to defend the global exports of colonialism or ask me why I speak such fluent English (both true stories, in case you were wondering).
My yoga teacher, a soft-spoken white woman, proceeded to do a role-call of all the students in attendance.
“Akshiti,” I interjected, pronouncing my name for her.
“Thank you,” she called out to the room, flustered and relieved, before beginning a class built around the Sanskrit names of yoga poses.
It is not the pronunciation itself that makes me upset. In my time at Columbia, home to students of many ethnicities and cultures, I have learned new silent letters and juggled phonetic acrobatics. What crawls under my skin is the delicate and deliberate designation of only certain names, like mine, as ‘unpronounceable.’
Just a few weeks ago in an economics class, a professor of mine called on students to volunteer for in-class presentations. A student put her hand up, and as the professor asked for her name, she began to spell it out for him. “Oh, that’s not hard,” I remember him saying as he wrote it down, “It’s the same name as the gardens in Europe.”
Sometimes I wish that my name did not carry the weight of a silent pause that leaves me scrambling to fill in the gap in conversation that is inevitably created by my impropriety. It feels like bad manners to have a name like that.
And so I suppose there is some moral in this story of childhood bullies and well-intentioned, uninformed, white people: I should draw on an inner well of strength to not feel worn down by daily microaggressions about my name. And then there’s the glaringly obvious idea that a person’s name is their most wearable, visible, and personal identity, so making cruel fun of it or not bothering to learn how to pronounce it is hard for anyone to deal with, whether they are imperishable or not.
Enjoy leafing through our third issue!