In Sanskrit, my name means daughter, one who brings joy to the family. In English, it means I’ll never stop fearing introductions. I’m mostly used to it by now - the blank stare, the apologetic smile, the “Can I call you something else instead?” - but every time a teacher starts to call roll, I can’t help it: I silently bad-mouth my parents. It’s not that I hate my name; I hate the way it looks on the attendance list, between all the Catherines and Emilys and Madisons, but I love how it sounds when someone says it right. Nandini. None-the-knee. It feels like something falling into place.
To my family, a name is a name, and they don’t understand the weird, back-and-forth relationship I have with mine. I would have turned out the same whether I was named Nandini or Natalie, so what’s the big deal? It’s a rhetorical question, but I have an answer: the names that immigrant parents give their kids matter because some, like mine, serve as constant reminders of heritage and cultural expectations for people striving to assimilate.
Your physical features, manner of speech and style of dress are all automatic indicators of how similar or different you are to other people. So is your name. In my case, though, looks, language and clothing choices were easier to adjust than the name on my birth certificate. I could wake up extra early to straighten my curly Indian hair. I could substitute the razai for the blanket, the dabba for the lunchbox. I could bury my salwar kameezes in the recesses of my closet and forget they existed. But my name - it was always there, crouched in the corner like an awkward guest, ready to announce its otherness to the whole room.
After eighth grade, I moved to a new town, and decided to tell people my name was Nina. Finally, the last piece of the perfect all-American puzzle I’d been trying to complete for years fell into place. People weren’t constantly forgetting my name or asking if they could call me something else, because Nina was familiar to them. It felt great - until parent-teacher conferences happened. It took my mom and dad the whole evening to figure out who this “Nina” my teachers kept talking about was, and when they did, they weren’t mad. Only confused. I’d spent my whole childhood putting up with the mispronunciations, correcting people, telling them they weren’t trying hard enough, and now I was giving up, just like that?
That was the day I realized why my parents had named me Nandini. It wasn’t because they were trying to turn me into some image of the perfect Indian daughter, but because they knew that was never going to happen. They knew they were raising me in America. Growing up here has set me apart from them in so many ways, from things like my accent and my clothes to my passions, my convictions, my beliefs. I needed my name to be a reminder that, for people like me, cultural identity isn’t about ditching one country for another. It’s about taking the best of both worlds, and when people disrespect that, telling them no - you can’t call me something else instead.
Nandini Kuppa-Apte is 17. She lives in Singapore.