by Hemanth Nalamothu

How do you answer this?

A recent conversation with a family member, who didn’t know that I use an “American” name, led to some self-reflection on names: the ones we use and the ones given to us. And what it all means.

As you can tell in the byline, Ray is not my name. This fact was not lost on my cousin’s wife, a lovely woman that I adore, who proceeded to ask in a rather accusatory tone why did I introduced myself as such? I feebly tried to explain the legitimacy of my alias in the time it took us to ride the elevator up to the party. She wasn’t buying any of it. She declared that she would only call me by my real name, something I had never asked her to stop doing. We soon dropped the conversation almost as quickly as it had started, and proceeded to enjoyed the party.

But just because we had stopped discussing it, didn’t mean I’d stopped thinking about the exchange. Here was a person who was now a part of my family; looking at me like I wasn’t being true to myself. Like I had done something wrong. I had to question myself. What’s in a name to elicit that kind of reaction?

If I could go back in time, I would ask people to call me Night Hawk.

The truth is, names have power. Names inform what something is, or isn’t. Names can sometimes hurt us. Sometimes they can help us. Some names are given to us, some are chosen. It’s a central part of anyone’s life. For better or worse, it is a part of our identity before we even fully understand what that might be.

Names are our history. My name is Hemanth Nalamothu. For you non-Telugu speaking readers, the way to pronounce it is {Hey-month} {Nuh-lah-moe-thoo}. It can be a bit of a tongue twister for some people here in the United States. In India, where my name originates from, there’s a myriad of beautiful tongues which yield incredible names that go on for syllables, and wind about to and fro. Some of these names go back to antiquity and have roots in languages that are no longer spoken today. These names often inform what a family did in the past, or where they hailed from. What a powerful thing- your whole history captured in a few letters, or tones escaping your mouth.

He-man and the masters of the universe. Irony of ironies; I never even watched it.

Names can also evolve as we do. Growing up in New York City you meet all manner of people. And whether you like it or not, they will call you all manner of things. The kids you play with in your neighborhood are often the first ones to baptize you with a new name. It’s a badge of honor of sorts; signifying your entry into the fold. The hooligans I used to run with in my youth would call me ‘He-man’; a nod to the muscle-bound protagonist of the popular 1980s cartoon series. Objectively, it made sense as it was just an abbreviation of my first name. I hated it, but it stuck. There was no committee, no votes cast. I was now Heman and would be hereafter for some time. To challenge the ruling with an appeal would invite something far worse; ostracism. Of course, I wasn’t singled out in this bizarre rite of passage. There was ‘hands’ (could catch anything), ‘wonder bread’ (white dude who was good at football), ‘superman’ (white dude who was really good at football), ‘tiny’ (who was actually enormous), and a whole host of other appellations tied to physical characteristics, abilities, or some other inexplicable metric by which these sorts of things are determined.

Names can also serve a specific purpose. When it came time for me to move onto the next stage of my life; I decided to pick a new name. I was about to join the military, and knowing that the Army was a significantly less diverse place than NYC, my name might prove a hindrance. Already, I was becoming increasingly exasperated with having to continually repeat my name, only to hear it echoed back in ever stranger permutations. In an attempt at assimilating into the lingua franca, I adopted the nickname “Ray” to accommodate some of my less linguistically inclined compatriots. Like He-man,this too was not borne out of some deep meditation or reflection. Instead, a guy I used to play basketball with mistakenly thought ‘Hey-month’ was ‘Ray-mond’ one day, and dubbed me so. It also helps that Ray is the anagrammatic form of the Hindi word Yaar, which means a close friend. It seemed fitting. Plus, my options were limited; “Indy” was second place, a rather uninspiring choice bestowed upon me by an associate up in the Bronx because I was Indian. So, I started using Ray when introducing myself to new people in professional and personal settings.

Names can impact your path through life. My family and closest friends still call me Hemanth but to the outside world and new acquaintances I am Ray. A simple one-syllable sound that is easy to remember and say. Even across accents or tonalities. Depending on the circumstances I might introduce myself as Hemanth, typically to other South Asians, but more often than not I go with Ray. It has helped in my professional career in many ways. People are more at ease with someone that they can identify with when interviewing, hiring, approving a loan for, etc. This has been proven time, and time, and time again. This concept of fluency, or the cognitive preference towards information that is easier to process, is an actual sociological bias. It can make people like you more. It can help your company make more money. Knowing that: if using a nickname can help you at least get your foot in the door, or give you a competitive edge, why not roll with it?

Here’s an anecdote. When I was in Australia, my parents and I were searching for an AirBnB. To speed up the search both my mother and I were applying to different houses and apartments. My father, who’s not particularly tech savvy, watched in bemusement at this newfangled way of finding temporary lodging. I noticed a rather alarming trend where my mom’s reservations were continually getting cancelled abruptly with little to no explanation. My requests were almost universally accepted. My profile had “Ray” as my name because I had suspected, accurately, that some people would be less inclined to accept a reservation from someone with a foreign, non-Western, sounding name. Again, if the game is already rigged- why wouldn’t you try for every advantage?

Truer words.

Names can breed controversy. Circling back to the genesis of this piece, I was rather surprised that someone was questioning my nickname so critically. My cousin in-law is a great person. She’s whip smart and a lot of fun. So her reaction to something so benign, in my view, gave me pause. It spurred me to reflect on the power of names, and how they shape us. This wasn’t a new conundrum for me, but certainly one that I hadn’t explored in some time. Especially with family. My mother had originally questioned me about why I would not always use my given name when meeting new people. The name she’d picked for me. I’m sure she felt hurt. Like my choice was a repudiation of her, and by extension our culture. That definitely wasn’t the case. I’ve never officially changed my name, nor have any plans to do so. On all publications, certifications, and even awards presentations I always insist on my given name being used. In my mind, I’ve never crossed the imaginary line of trying to be someone that I’m not. I’ve never tried to white-wash myself to be more palatable to certain groups of people. I’ve certainly never tried to hide or belittle my heritage. Many of my South Asian friends, especially those in the military, understand where I’m coming from. None of them have accused me of being disingenuous to the culture or an Uncle Taj. But that’s the paradigm of life as an outsider. Being the other. Sometimes you just can’t win. Even with the people who are supposed to be on your side.

To cap it all off, one final vignette. My father has lived in this country for almost three decades. He, like so many others of his generation, came to America to try and make a better life for himself and his family. By all indication he’s done just that. Along the way, he too adopted an American sounding nickname in the form of “Roger”. A mispronunciation of “Raja” (already a shorthand for his full name) Roger was all his colleagues on job sites around the city and Long Island could manage or be bothered to learn. And so that’s who he was to those guys. When asked about this, he merely shrugs. What does it matter? Who cares? What’s in a name?

Maybe nothing. Maybe everything.

NYC based writer. Focused on topical issues in culture, defense, and politics. Please send all inquiries to RayAlamo1@gmail.com

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