So, I’m starting with a cheeky nod to the fabulous Pistol Annies because even though this has been psychologically tougher than it should have been, I want it to be ultimately empowering, like the good ladies sing. This year I’m entering my fourth decade and really want to leave behind as much of the detritus I’ve collected up over the last 40 years as possible. Seriously, my list of new years resolutions is longer than The Irishman. Top of the pile is to finally shed a particularly ugly diminutive of my given name that has followed me around since childhood, chosen by my parents and co-opted by anyone and everyone who came into contact with me from the age of zero to 27.
You might think that asking folks to call you by your given name isn’t a big deal, but when that name is an unpronounceable counterintuitive mess that even most of my fellow Sri Lankans struggle with, the situation is a little bit different. Growing up in the racist, cultureless black hole that was Swindon in the 1980s, having a name like that only added to my awkward visibility, so reducing it to a simple one-syllable moniker that even ignorant North Wiltshire folk could spell may not sound like the worst idea. Ah, but there is the rub. This particularly ungainly non-word was most notable for its ability to rhyme with a substantial array of playground insults that progressed to teenage slurs then graduated to student pseudo-jests. Giving a child a name that rhymes with poo is literally the cruellest thing parents can do – Life Of Pi’s Piscine Patel got off bloody lightly in comparison. Surely, you say, adults wouldn’t sink to such base depths, especially not in London? Try being regularly greeted by a chorus of Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport and having to pretend to laugh along with everyone else so that you’re not one of those humourless Asians. Yeah. That.
So, when the choice is between being a good sport, a team player, and giving white people a name they can pronounce even though it stuck in my miserable throat, or being one of those difficult Asians who makes everyone else’s life harder by insisting on sticking to their weird multi-syllable name, I’ve been stuck between a rock and a hard place my whole life. Back in the 80s and 90s the onus was very much on us as immigrants to fit in. Teachers did not consider it their responsibility to learn the correct way to say my name and brutalised it with impunity and without apology. Of course, they didn’t bother halting the poo taunts either. That was just how things were if you had brown skin. By the time I went to university, I had it so ingrained in me to put up with being called my gross diminutive that even though I cringed every time I said it I never had the guts to challenge the supremacy of the English idiom. One thing I did learn at university is that having such a ridiculously infantalising name meant that no one took me seriously. Thus, when I (eventually) entered the workplace, I girded myself up and insisted, come hell or high water, that people call me by my full name. It’s both boring and exhausting having to constantly correct people’s pronunciation, but by the late 2000s even the doddery upper-class white men I worked for were aware that they had to at least try. Political correctness, innit.
Progress, you may think, but nothing in life is that simple. Unfortunately my friends from university as well as my family dug their heels. They didn’t want to change. It was too hard. How could they possibly be expected to remember? Did I really have a right to make this imposition on them? Couldn’t I just leave things as they were? Seriously, that’s how low my own comfort with my own name has been valued. And yes, like the nice compliant (read defeated) soul I was I said yes, fine. Cos I didn’t want to be one of those Asians. Fortunately, I’ve left most of those people behind now, but that nasty little name has hung around like, yes, you guessed it, you-know-what on a wall. Years have passed, and while I’ve kept my head (and my real name) up at work, my social circle has become so mixed that even new friends end up defaulting to that ghastly diminutive as they hear it from older friends. It feels like an inescapable backwards spiral pushing me down into being a person I don’t want to be. Yeah, my given name sucks but at least it has some weight to it, and at least hearing it doesn’t send me ricocheting into PTSD from years of bullying and torment (of which my name was just one part, I’m sure we’ll get to the rest another time).
2020 is going to be the year I put this sorry mess to bed. It’s the year I’m going to risk stirring up disapproval and become one of those Asians. Yesterday I sent out a missive to my nearest and dearest issuing a polite but firm request that that horrorshow of a name be retired for good. I’ve even made up a snappy new moniker for those who really can’t get their tongue around my given name. So far responses have been pretty positive, but it’s early days and I’m dreading the inevitable stand-off with head-in-the-sand elders, but in taking back my name I’m trying to take back a piece of my identity that I’ve had no say over until now and define it rather than it defining me.
So there you go. I got my name changed back.