Americanizing Names

As I was walking out of the grocery store today, I noticed the mural of managers this particular supermarket chain tends keeps above its doors, where displayed are the pictures and names for all that store’s managers. Out of habit I started reading them when when something threw me for a bit of a loop.

“Sean Hansen … Michael Holmes … Jeff Gonzales … Clint Chandraprasad … wait, what?” I did a double-take.

The picture above that last name was that of an Indian, through and through. (By the length of the last name, I’m guessing he was from the south, probably Hyderabad, probably Telegu.) After my swift double-take, I couldn’t help but laugh to myself a little.

So, I thought to myself, how again does an Indian come about being named “Clint”?

It isn’t uncommon for foreigners, especially those from Asia, to take on more American-sounding names. After all, how many of us have met a “Joe Yu”, a “Wendy Xing”, or a “Steve Nguyen”? For a long time, even Europeans and Hispanics would have to choose more American-friendly names. (A personal example, Cartagena would likely have been made into Carter, or something similar.) What I find interesting — and maybe this is just me — is the strange way American-sounding names are almost forcibly tacked on to Indian names, as in the case of mister Chandraprasad.

This reminds me of something that happened a couple of years ago: I was calling Dell tech support because I had a problem with my laptop, an older Inspiron 8100. After being transferred to tech support, a lady with a rather heavy Indian accent answered.

“Hallo, this is Susan,” she said. “How may I help you?”

After a little bit of troubleshooting, I decided to veer the conversation off into a more friendly direction. I went on to ask her, “So, where are you located?”

“In India,” she answered.

Well, duh, I thought. “What part?” I continued. I was familiar enough with India to know that “south” usually meant Hyderabad and “north” usually meant Dheli.

“The south part.”

“Ah, so Hyderabad?”

“No, actually. I’m in Bangalore, but I’m from near Hyderabad.” She sounded a bit more excited, probably at the realization that she wasn’t talking to a regular American. “Do you know India?” she asked me.

“Ah, I see. No, I haven’t gone to India,” which is why I knew not to try for the town name around Hyderabad, “but I have a lot of Indian friends. I work for Verizon and, honestly, it’s like little Mumbai in my office. More Indians than Americans! Still, It doesn’t seem very likely you’d get a name like Susan in Hyderabad. What’s your real name?”

“No, really, it’s Susan.”

“Aw, c’mon. If you’re from Hyderabad you’re probably Telegu, and ‘Susan’… I don’t think so. What’s your real name”

She started laughing, “Shivalakshmi Maduraivajiya”

?!?!?!

I almost dropped the phone. I was expecting an Indian name, but not like that one. “Wow,” I continued. “that’s — uhmm — a very nice name. I guess that then your work name is ‘Susan Maduraivajiya’.

Still laughing, “Thank you. It’s not too easy, I know.”

“It’s OK,” I told her. “I have friends with names like Santhanakrishna and Pushpendra Kumar. Mind if I call you Shivalakshmi?”

Needless to say this wasn’t the first such incident, not was it the last. Still in this case… Susan Maduraivajiya? While not as bad as Clint Chandraprasad, it’s still not exactly an easy match. Imagine the shock someone must feel when they first encounter the name in conversation, after being disarmed by the deceptively simple Clint or Susan. “Hi, are you the manager? Mister… Clint? I’m sorry, I don’t think I caught your last name… Oh, uhmm… Chandlerplacid? Chaderpreysahd? Chandrapfrjaiufnr? Chan…dra-pra-sad. How do you spell that?” (And, of course, the logical answer would be an indignant “exactly like it sounds, what’s so hard about that?!“)

I guess it would be a bit like walking into a carwash and seeing that the manager’s name is Billy Joe Hongzhang.

While I feel this whole thing is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole, I guess if “Billy Joe” is easier for your customers and co-workers to handle than “Bai Li Zhao”, if “Susan” is more endearing than “Shivalakshmi”, and if “Clint” is easier than “Kirtikumar” — and it keeps you from losing sales — then by all means, Americanize away. Just have patience when I try to pronounce your un-Americanized last name. I promise I’ll afford you the same luxury when you try to pronounce my own un-Americanized last name.

2 thoughts on “Americanizing Names

  1. I wish. There were a fair amount of Thai folks at my university, though, so I got a taste of the food. I remember a friend of mine whose name I always found threateningly interesting. She called herself “Rene”, but her name was Rawewan Chapukinstan, or something like that. It was hard to pronounce because it felt like no air was flowing out of my mouth when saying the name. Maybe I should have named her something easier, like… Carter. Or Chipmunk. I don’t think she would have appreaciated that, though.

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