Re-Made in the USA

Every substitute teacher I had in grade school went through roll call the same way.

“Julia?”

“Here.”

“Charlie?”

“Here.”

“…”

A pause meant only one thing.

“Here. It’s Broti.”

“What is your name? Brawn…ti?”

“Broti. Or Brodie. I mean — whatever you prefer.”

Broti is pronounced with the “th” of “that”. It’s a hard “th” sound and that’s what really traumatizes most people. Repeat after me, I say. Bro. “Bro.” Ti. “Ti.” “Broti.” “Braww-ttthhheee.”

My family, originally from India, immigrated to the States twenty years ago. I was one. I know no other country as intimately as I know this one. So it seems fitting that I should be renamed here, right?

Its original spelling in Bengali (my first language) is “Brati”. The ‘a’ in Bengali is pronounced like an ‘o’ so my parents had it legally changed. As soon as we moved here, my parents got tired of my classmates or teachers calling me “Bratty.” (And what if I became a self-fulfilling prophecy). To stop bullies or well-meaning white people from calling me bratty, my parents changed my name to a more phonetic spelling, even if it rejected the original Bengali spelling.

My parents gave up the agency of naming their child, perhaps as a price for moving to this country.

Weirdly enough, the most stressful question you can ask me — even worse than, “Do you have a job?” or, “Why is this in your browser history?” — is, “What’s your name?” My name has evolved from a tool of self-identity to a test of cultural loyalty. And more often than not, the loyalty is broken. It’s a weird position to be in, if you think about it, prioritizing somebody else’s comfort over mine when it comes to my name.

Introducing myself feels like it takes hours. Every sound that comes out of my mouth is a surprise — sincerely — because I’m making a decision. Do I want to be genuine or not? In that split second of decisions and revisions, I end up saying some kind of mixture of Brodie and Broti. Brodti. Which is arguably more wrong than either pronunciation. Which means I am technically the worst at saying my name. Maybe, it’s a metaphor for self-loathing. “But I’ll respond to anything.” (What I mean is, I’m sorry for the burden of my existence.)

When I was little, I liked the name Jessica because it was fabulous and big-haired and every Jessica I had met ‘til then looked like every blonde lady from The Young and the Restless. So when email became popular, my sister asked me what I wanted my username to be. Wow, I thought, I can make it anything? I’ll be Jessica, please. Jessica@Aol.com. My sister said no. My email had my first name. What a waste, I thought: I almost had this fantastic opportunity to rename myself and it was, much like everything else, destroyed by reality.

With every new school I went to, every new city I moved to, I entertained the idea of changing my name. What I didn’t realize, though, was that every time I opted out of saying, “Broti” and instead gave some perversion of Brodti, I was changing my name. It should feel the same as renaming myself Jessica because Brodti isn’t my name either and my best friend is angry I never introduced myself as Broti. Didn’t I owe it to my friends to be honest? Didn’t I, at the very least, owe it to myself?

Recently, I met a girl at a friend’s party. My friend introduced the two of us to each other, and I said, “Hi. I’m Broti (Brodie).” She reached out to shake my hand and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Amrita (Am-reeda).” It clicked later what her name really was (as Indians, we are sometimes racially ambiguous — even to each other). Later, during a game of dice, I reached over and asked Amrita (UM-ree-tha) to pass me the die. She perked up and said, “Oh, wow! So, it’s Broti (Bro-thee)?” We both shared a laugh and a mutual understanding that this moment was a real introduction.

In college, I was part of our campus’s South Asian community. We all knew to pronounce each other’s names differently among ourselves and among friends outside our community. We instinctively altered our names growing up, but found this group of similar people with similar experiences. “What do Americans call you?” “Nuh-keed-a.” “Div-eeya.” It’s a place of solidarity, to know that as a collective, we have all subscribed to a colonization of our names, and a westernization of our identities. But in that collective, we have slowly found a way to start pronouncing our names with the pride our parents did when we were born.

It’s a different kind of coming out to society. It’s a way to stop saying sorry for who I am or what my name is. It is a re-identification of sorts. And perhaps it will take me a while to summon up the courage to fill the pause during roll call and answer the question, “What is your name?”

But, for now, I’ll confidently say, “Broti.”

(I mean — whatever you prefer.)

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