I am in the University coffee shop. It's 8:20 a.m. and I have stopped by to get breakfast and coffee before heading to the library to get some work done before class. Behind me is a long line of students, some back from a jog, some on their way to their 8:30 a.m. lessons. My turn arrives and I bid good morning to the lady at the register.
"Can I get a caramel macchiato and a whole wheat bagel with jalapeño salsa spread, please?"
"Of course," she smiles as she writes down the order, "What is your name?"
I hesitate for a split second before replying, "Nina."
My full name is Dumingu Kankanamage Nipuni Poornima Gomes.
I go by "Nipuni."
These days, I also go by "Nina."
Let me tell you a story:
Growing up, I never considered using a name that was not my own for the sake of the different name being easier for others to pronounce. My parents always told my older sister and me to be proud of our names, and to teach people how to pronounce them rather than shying away from them. Our names are part of our culture, our heritage, our parents said. They came with a certain sense of pride that we had to preserve at all costs as Sri Lankan immigrants in this foreign land called Honduras.
My name, Nipuni, which is my true given name ("Dumingu" and "Kankanamage" being my father's family's prefixes - a long standing tradition that many Sri Lankan families still practice), was not too difficult for my Spanish-speaking classmates to pronounce. The prefixes were never used in any document but my passport. Save for some interesting nicknames that came out of it (mostly related to poop), "Nipuni" was what everyone called me.
In elementary school, I had a friend named Ricky. He and his family were Chinese immigrants. Eight-year old me thought it a little odd for a Chinese person to be named "Ricky," but never really cared. Ricky was a good friend at the time and, in fifth grade, when he told me and our other friends that his family would be moving to another country, I felt quite sad. One day, during the last few weeks of school that year, Ricky confessed a secret to our classmates and me: his name was not really "Ricky," he said, it was something else (which, although I remember as clearly as the light of day, I will refrain from writing here).
Very few of our classmates could pronounce Ricky's real name. Those who couldn't immediately began making fun of it. One of the last memories I have of Ricky is his tear-stained face and angry expression as he said that he wished he had never told us his real name.
Several years later, in my junior year of high school, I had a Korean friend who used a Latinized version of his real name, as well as an entirely different name, depending on the situation. He did not tell me what his real name was until much later. The day he told me about this name, I felt betrayed. In my mind, all this time, he had put me at the same level as those people he considered not smart enough to be able to pronounce his real name.
In college, I began to meet people from several nationalities and ethnicities. I also began to realize how common it was for people to go by names different from their own. I admit I was that one extremely annoying person who asked, "No, what is your real name?" when I met international students who introduced themselves with a name that sounded "too American" to be true.
Due to technicalities, all my official documents now contained my full name rather than just "Nipuni Poornima Gomes." It has always been a treat to watch professors confusedly eye the roster on the first day of class when pronouncing "Dumingu Kankanamage." I went by "Nipuni," and wouldn't have had it any other way.
Gradually, however, it became more and more tedious to teach people how to pronounce my name. Sometimes people became uncomfortable, and some even told me things like, "you don't have to be so condescending," even when I did not mean to be condescending at all. On other occasions, people continually misspelled and mispronounced my name and wouldn't budge even when I corrected them.
I began to feel as if I was just the girl with the hard-to-pronounce name, the girl who (apparently) sounded condescending when she told her name to people who had a hard time pronouncing it...
One day, when someone asked me what my name was, I replied, "Nipuni. You can also call me 'Nina.'"
Makes it easier for everyone.
Dale Carnegie wrote in his book How to Make Friends and Influence People: "A person's name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language." I read this book when I was in elementary school, and this is one of its many lessons that has stuck with me. However, let me put it in perspective:
Indeed, a person's name is the sweetest music to their own ears: the name being what that person wishes to be called. If a person wants to be called by a name other than that on their birth certificate, then everybody must respect that individual's wishes (unless the chosen moniker is something completely socially unacceptable).
Not long ago, I realized something: all this time, I have been doing the exact same thing that my Korean friend from high school did. "Nipuni" is correctly pronounced "nípüni." Nonetheless, whenever I tell someone my name, I pronounce it "nəpo͝oni."
Because it's pretty hard for nearly anybody outside of Asia to say "nípüni." It is not that I think other people are stupid, or that I do not honor the name my parents gave me; I simply value the productive conversation I can have with someone over spending five whole minutes teaching them how to pronounce my name, at the risk of making them feel inadequate.
If you can say "Nipuni," then it's fine, call me "Nipuni." If you're going to say "napuni," "nipuno," "noponi," or "niponi" instead, and never make an attempt at correcting yourself, I would much rather have you call me "Nina."
My name is Dumingu Kankanamage Nipuni Poornima Gomes.
Call me "Nipuni."
You can also call me "Nina."
End of story.