It’s OK if you initially think my name is pronounced ‘Abby’ – but when I politely correct you, please listen.
Recently, when I asked someone their name, they chose to spell it out for me before telling me what it was. I smiled and nodded in understanding, then did the same. “A-b-h-i, pronounced: Ah-bee.”
“Is that your full name?’’ they asked.
Well, actually it’s Abhirami Kanagalingam… but I don’t have 20 minutes to spell it two or three times, break it down into syllables and explain how to pronounce it, so just call me Abhi.
Most Malaysian Indians and Sri Lankans do not have family names. Instead, children inherit their father’s given name at birth and use it alongside a name chosen by their parents. Growing up, my mother would tell me how much thought and love went into her picking “Abhirami” for me: “I wanted something traditional that also sounded musical.” She told me that I share a name with a powerful Hindu goddess. But because I was at an age when I thought I knew everything, my mother’s heartwarming story didn’t change how I felt. My insecurities began at school in Malaysia when my classmates took “Abhirami” and turned it into Abhi-babi. Babi is the Malay word for pig.
When I moved to Aotearoa for university, I realised my name would make me a target in different ways. Being “Abhirami Kanagalingam” meant people often made assumptions about my race and identity. Once, on a booked-out Malaysian Airlines flight to Kuala Lumpur, two young white men decided it would be funny to make me the butt of their alcohol-fueled racist jokes for the entire duration of the flight. They were on their way to Bali, and I had the misfortune of sitting next to them. It all started when a crew member came up to me and said (with perfect pronunciation): “Abhirami Kanagalingam, your Hindu meal will be with you shortly.” I felt an embarrassing heat creeping up my neck as I cursed myself for ordering the Hindu meal. Why couldn’t I have just accepted the fish or chicken? The men giggled, and in what I think their version of an Indian accent was, twisted my name into obscene variations while laughing at the vegetarian curry I was eating. It was the kind of carefree, thoughtless bullying that can only come from not knowing what it is like to be at the receiving end of racism.
I was traveling alone and too afraid to stand up for myself. I sat in silence, upset and embarrassed.
After university, when applying for jobs, I was told to change my name so HR wouldn’t throw my CV into the ”foreign pile” before even looking at it. I had to adapt, and adapting meant being more European. I shortened Abhirami to Abhi and started using my family name: Chinniah. But that still didn’t feel like enough. In interviews and subsequent jobs, I’d tell employers Abhi was pronounced Abby. Abhi – my name, and my identity – was hidden behind “Abby” for nearly five years. I’d buy bottles of Coke, bitter that no one was going to share a Coke with me because I wasn’t Jane or Sarah. I’d send passive-aggressive replies to people who despite seeing my email sign-off and even having met me in person still typed ‘’Ahbi’’ or “Arbi’’. I loathed having to spell my full legal name out on the phone, and then repeat myself two or three times when the person I was talking to missed a letter. I was angry that I had to be Abby to fit in.
Then one day I had enough and stopped introducing myself as Abby. My true self, the self that I was so desperately trying to hide, was pushing its way to the surface. And because I saw who I was, I wanted everyone else to see it too. I started correcting people when they said my name wrong. “It’s Abhi, pronounced Ah-bee.” It is not Abby. It is not Arbi. With this newfound self-respect also came a determination to give others the same courtesy – making sure my spelling and pronunciation were correct, and listening closely when introductions were made.
As we slowly move into the territory of knowing better and respecting different cultures, mispronouncing long ”foreign” names could one day become a thing of the past. Last year Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, the young star of the Netflix show Never Have I Ever posted a Twitter voice note about how much she loves her name and why it’s important to her that it’s pronounced correctly. She recounted how she used to not correct people who mispronounced “Maitreyi” because she didn’t want to inconvenience them, but now makes sure her name is said the right way. She followed up the voice note with a tweet: “Let’s make sure we remember that names have power. Pronounce people’s names the way they want it to be pronounced and put in the effort. So hey! My name is Maitreyi /my-tray-yee/”.
That is the kind of confidence I aspire to have.
When well-known people like Maitreyi Ramakrishnan stand up for their beliefs and wholly embrace who they are it can pave a way forward for the rest of us. If I decide to give my future children traditional Tamil names, I hope those names will be met with kindness and acceptance. The kind of acceptance I’ve spent half my life searching for.
Months ago, I tried to join my local community Facebook group and my request was declined. Bewildered, I messaged one of the admins to ask why and they said it was because my location was not on my Facebook profile. This might have made sense except that my Pākehā husband, who also didn’t have his location on his profile, was accepted without any questions. Why was this?
In response, the admin said something that summed it all up: we can only judge based on what we see. They nailed it! They didn’t see me – the Kiwi Asian who just wanted to join the local Facebook group for the area where I’d recently moved house. They saw a dark-skinned woman with a strange name and assumed I didn’t live in their neighbourhood. And I know this because they saw my husband’s profile, saw someone they thought of as already part of the local community, and welcomed him with open arms. I eventually got over the sting, but haven’t forgotten it.
What’s in a name anyway? Well, to me, it is a lot of things. It is your culture, heritage, ancestry, a foundation for who you are, or who you want to be. Names should be treated with respect, no matter how confusingly long they might be, or how comical they seem to idiots on a plane. If I can go out of my way to respect someone else’s name, can’t everyone?
Nowadays “Abhirami Kanagalingam” is an important part of my identity. Long, beautiful roots that began in Jaffna Sri Lanka found their way to Malaysia and have anchored themselves in Aotearoa. But I am also Abhi, and it’s really nice to meet you.
What’s your name?