Like many other browns I know, my name seems to bring out the worst in other people. When I taught elementary school in Brooklyn, an older colleague insisted on calling me “Ms. R.” “I don’t mean to offend,” he explained, “but if I try saying your last name, I know I’ll just sound silly.” Well, now you just sound like an idiot, I thought. A similar encounter occurred during my first week of graduate school, when the Dean approached me and introduced herself. I told her my name, and she asked, “Why couldn’t your parents just name you Molly or Jane?” Yes, I know, Naina Ramajayan…so difficult to pronounce, that even I just call myself ‘The N.’ It’s all pretty ironic, actually; considering that I’m a southie Hindu, my name is about as simple as it gets.
Thankfully, the baggage that comes with my name is fairly harmless, and I’m able to laugh it off. No one has ever looked at my name and suggested that I be targeted for homeland security. Some of my friends from college, however, haven’t been as lucky. When my friend Rahul Shah introduced himself to his co-worker a while ago, she responded, “Like, as in, the Shah of Iran, that Holocaust denier?” (Oh yes, she did.) Another friend felt pressured to start using his middle name at work because his boss joked that his first name, Amit, sounded like ‘Ahmed.’ And so what if does? “Dude,” he explained, “Three of the 9-11 hijackers were named Ahmed.” Amit, Ahmed, Shah, Iran…looks like the code is finally getting cracked.
I used to think these issues concerning names were a burden only for us brown people. But then I learned that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is in a similar predicament. CNN did a nice story a few weeks ago (you can view the clip here) on the “controversy” surrounding the Senator’s name. Since Obama rhymes with Osama, Barack rhymes with Iraq (and Chirac), and Hussein is his middle name, he’s evidently a newly-discovered threat to the United States. After watching that clip, I felt guilty for thinking my buddy Amit was just being paranoid of his boss all these years. In fact, now I’m even more paranoid than I ever was before. Of rampant stupidity, that is. Aasif Mandvi appeared on the Daily Show on Tuesday night to bring his perspective on Obama-Osama-gate.
My favorite line: Aasif Mandvi? Yikes, I sound like trouble. People, keep your eye on me.
Jokes aside, I have to wonder: if Barack’s name — or any of our names, for that matter — rhymed with McVeigh, Rudolph, or Kaczynski, would any of this even be a topic of discussion?