THE UNI BUBBLE - Say my name, know my history
Updated: Feb 29
What's the significance behind ethnic names? Neha Maqsood recounts a number of experiences where her ethnic name taught her more about her culture and history than any other experience could.
Four letters, two syllables, one word – yet people struggle as their tongue consistently halts, twists and turns, trying to churn out whatever gobbledygook they think my name is: Niha? Nihau? A Chinese neighbor once told me my name means ‘hello’ in Chinese; clearly, she was far from the right idea.
My name carries a connection between India and Pakistan because its roots are derived from subcontinental history. Having grown up in Pakistan for the past 18 years, my name has been recited by millions of mouths; millions of Pakistani mouths to be accurate. But ever since moving to the United Kingdom for university, the pronunciation of my name has been a daily challenge for a variety of people.
On my first day of university, I was inundated by white classmates; everything felt new and even exotic. Then began the roll-call. The professor, white, in his mid-’50s, smoothly rolled through the Pam’s, Cindy’s, and James’. Ahh, you know he’s arrived at your name because the stuttering has begun and the quizzical look on his forehead has appeared. You know then that YOU are the new and exotic thing. ‘Uhm, Ne…Neya. Sorry Naha?’ He sheepishly smiles and looks up from the list of names, probably searching for an ethnic person to laugh alongside and correct him, assuring that yes, that is a hard name, but A+ for the effort! I’m not saying all professors are like this, some apologize in advance for any mispronunciation, but most don’t even try, making me feel as if it was indeed my parents’ fault for sticking me with this albatross of a name.
But ever since moving to the United Kingdom for university, the pronunciation of my name has been a daily challenge for a variety of people
I won’t lie, after such encounters, Costa and not Starbucks had become my first-choice coffee shop. The uncomfortable sensation I felt whilst standing in line and stretching my mouth to impossible proportions attempting to articulately express my name was immense. Internally, I would hope I was a John or Sally but instead I was a Neha, and for the baristas at Starbucks, that’s a hard one.
My name comes from the native language Hindi but has is a common name in Pakistan. Personally, the process of reclaiming my name came with the realization that there was a scarcity of people of colour on campus, and how misrepresented they were in the curriculum. This all drove a need in me to really comprehend where I’m coming from, where my roots lie and what my identity meant; South Asian, Muslim, Pakistani, desi?
Of course, the process of reclamation wasn’t so grand and immediate. It began by donning more cultural clothes at university (Yes, I did get a few looks walking down the street) like kurta’s or jhumpkas, conversing more in Urdu with my international classmates and whenever I would speak to my parents on the phone, listening to more South Asian music and finally devouring books by authors of the diaspora. I slowly began to gather the story behind my name and how it represented so much more than just 4 letters; it was a result of my ancestors who escaped partition to carve out a safer future for me.
This all drove a need in me to really comprehend where I’m coming from, where my roots lie and what my identity meant; South Asian, Muslim, Pakistani, desi?
It took me time, more time than I would like to admit, but I slowly began to develop an unapologetic nature when it came to discussing, mispronouncing or saying my name. I realized that there is so much history, love and culture behind those 2 syllables, so whenever I encounter someone new, I would make an extra effort for them to say my name properly.
That’s not to say it always goes my way. I would often be on the receiving end of a few raised eyebrows or retorts like, ‘But that’s what I said…?’, but l would ignore that because I believed that this was a worthy cause. So, now I handle the baristas at Starbucks and that petulant auto-correct. I go out of the way to get people to say name properly. If I have made such an effort to learn about Western culture, adapt to the ever-so gloomy weather, surely they can learn to say a few syllables? My name is significant, and it has a history you can’t disregard.
Becoming unapologetic about my name was a learning curve; it was about learning to love Pakistan all over again, about understanding my culture and my language. It was memories and love all at once. My name makes me beautifully different and wonderfully unique. It’s practically an entity of its own.
So to those who don’t make an effort to understand or say my name the correct way, understand that my name is vast. It means ‘rain’ and it also means ‘love’. It has links to language and culture you know nothing about. It has had an existence in history before me and will continue after me. It reminds me of Pakistan in all its tenderness. Frankly, my name is too important to be simplified but instead needs to stumble on your tongue just to be released in all its power to say, ‘Neha’.
The original home (The Uni Bubble) for this article can be found here -