I didn’t realize this until coming to India, but for most of my life, I grew to except that my name would be hard for people to understand. You wouldn’t think so. It’s phonetic, and pretty easy to pronounce, but it was a very rare day that I would meet someone and introduce myself, and my name wouldn’t be met with a slightly confused look or a polite straining of the ear.
Granted, some of it is the fault of our American pronunciation system – our R’s get swallowed way more than in other countries, where the R’s are flipped. But that’s also why, in India, where many names sound just like mine (Meena, Vina, Nina…) there is never any confusion when I pronounce my name.
I started pronouncing my name differently when I had to call service companies for our apartment. Over the phone, and with my american accent, it was impossible for them to understand me. But the minute I pronounced my full name with an Indian accent, flipped the R, brought the tongue a little closer to the hard pallete for the N, and then divided my last name into three syllables (iss-MA-yal), it was instant recognition.
I now live in a culture where most people already know someone named Reena. About half the time, when I introduce myself to people, they will tell me that their niece or friend or colleague is also named Reena. When my name is hastily taken down on take out orders and receipts, there is no question that the spelling will be correct. And even when I say my last name, people’s immediate reaction is to start trying to place me, either asking me if I’m Muslim, what city in India my family is from, or commenting that they’ve mostly heard Esmail as a first name (which it is). The fact that my name suddenly means something to people, that it says something about me and opens up a discussion beyond its pronunciation, means more to me than I thought it would. Conversations start differently and move easily in many directions. There is instant resonance.
As a kid, like most kids, I never liked my name. As I grew up and out of a fascination with personalized license plates and keychains (most of my friends had standard american names, and mine was the only one that would never appear in those rows of alphabetized snow globes at Sea World), I accepted my name as a way to identify myself, and didn’t think much about it.
But in India… I love my name. When people pronounce it here, even just to refer to me in conversation, it sounds beautiful and musical, unapologetic. I have even stopped inflecting it like a question, as I do in the west. Here, it isn’t a question.