“Before I completely butcher it, how do you pronounce your name?” Ever since I was four, most of my introductions have been preceded by variations of that statement. And up until August 2020, my response had always been the same — “it’s NEE-ha-REE-ka.” I know this might not mean much yet for those of you unfamiliar with my name — Niharika. But for me, it did mean a lot — and it continues to do so.
To provide some backstory, I was only about four and a half years old when my family immigrated to Virginia from India. The shift brought about a flood of change and adjustments, but many pieces of our culture and traditions remained. For example, in India, it’s common for many families to have a nickname for children that’s completely different from their actual name. The same applied to me. Around my family and extended family, I was “Isha.” Everywhere else, I was “Niharika.”
Personally, I’ve always loved this distinction. It’s a strangely warming feeling to be able to be called something different by those who love me unconditionally. But, this separation of names also resulted in a significant mix-up. As a four-year-old who had only ever heard myself as “Isha,” I was clueless when it came to the pronunciation of my real name. So, on my first day of school in America, when my teacher said “NEE-ha-REE-ka,” I simply just rolled with it. And I rolled with it for the next 13 years.
Before I mislead you into thinking I never learned my name’s actual pronunciation, allow me elaborate. Ultimately, when I was about eight or nine, I did learn that Niharika was “Ni-HAA-ri-ka.” In retrospect, I’m not fully sure how the incorrect pronunciation even persisted for so long, given opportunities for it to be corrected — such as parent-teacher conferences. Yet, it doesn’t change the fact that it did. And by the time I realized the fundamental misunderstanding, I convinced myself it was too late to turn back.
First off, as one of four Indian-American kids in my grade of over 150 students, I already felt uncomfortable sharing my culture. I thought the Americanized pronunciation of my name was more convenient for my peers and would be considered “cooler” in comparison. I surely didn’t want to correct the pronunciation after my classmates had known me as “NEE-ha-REE-ka” for years. So, I didn’t.
But this wasn’t all. While it was only one piece of the problem, my name’s pronunciation was symbolic of my own lack of comfort with my Indian-American background. Beyond not correcting it for people who knew me, I also endured years of hearing awful and borderline disrespectful pronunciations. Even now, every time I think I’ve heard it all, people always find a new way to twist the vowels or add arbitrary consonants to my name.
One time, my teacher accidentally called me “Margarita” in front of the class — in an unironic, genuine way. And yet, I was the one who felt embarrassed. I felt like it was my responsibility, my fault that my name wasn’t easy to pronounce. Looking back at it, I hate that I felt that way. I hate that I let my own name become a symbol of embarrassment.
Fortunately for me, college — a chance to start fresh — was in the future. Before my first year in the summer of 2020, I often wrestled with the idea of correcting my name’s pronunciation. On one hand, I’d been called “NEE-ha-REE-ka” my whole life and changing it felt wrong somehow. On the other, I had the opportunity to take control of my identity for once.
During the first day of a writing seminar I was taking, I finally had to make the choice. When it was my turn for introductions, I let the syllables “Ni-HAA-ri-ka” flow out of my mouth for the first time in my life. Initially, it felt strange, out of place. But in a matter of seconds, that sentiment transitioned into comfort and warmth. It felt right. My name finally felt like my own.
From that day on, I haven’t looked back. I still have friends from high school call me “NEE-ha-REE-ka” since that feels more natural to me. But beyond that, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to introduce myself in the way I should’ve done years ago — as Niharika.
I know this might not be as momentous for others as it was for me. However, I truly feel like my life has changed for the better since that moment. Sparked by the change, I’ve already grown a lot more comfortable with myself and my background. It’s unfamiliar and beautiful all at once.
In some aspects, I do have a long way to go. One of my nicknames — unexpectedly coined by my field hockey coach in high school — is “Nihi.” Sometimes, I feel compelled to introduce myself as that shortened version just so that it’s easier for my peers to learn. But, I continuously attempt to remind myself that it’s not my responsibility — it never was.
Before moving on, I must point out that I don’t mean to call out anyone with these sentiments about properly dealing with pronunciations. Speaking as someone who’s been on both ends, learning new names — especially from other cultures — can be difficult and intimidating. But the issue arises when people don’t even appear to try. There is absolutely no reason I should be called “Nitarisa” but the reality is that I’ve heard that and worse.
At the end of the day, I just want to feel like the person in front of me is making an effort. I don’t want people to conveniently opt for a “butchered” pronunciation of Niharika just because it’s foreign. I will never mind people asking me over and over again to be reminded of my name’s pronunciation. In fact, every time someone asks me for clarification, I genuinely feel a surge of joy. The simple act helps to lift any burden of embarrassment I used to feel when people didn’t know and worse, didn’t care about the pronunciation.
While it’s taken me years to be able to correct my name’s pronunciation — and feel content doing so — I wish I’d addressed the issue much earlier. It can be incredibly difficult to be a person of color in predominantly white communities. I can understand the urge to change yourself and your preferences in an attempt to fit in. That’s exactly what I did with my name and many other parts of my life. At the same time, there is such power in cultural recognition and acceptance. It’s a small step, but I encourage everyone to use their actual names. Their own names.
And for those on the other side of it, don’t feel afraid to ask how to pronounce a name. It’s an exponentially better feeling to be asked a pronunciation than to be called something unbelievably incorrect. After years of changing myself to fit in, it’s truly uplifting to see others making that effort to get to know me.
For many individuals, a name may just be a name. But I find that these strings of letters and sounds have the potential for much more. My name is indicative of who I am — not only what I’m called but also where I’m from and what I value. “Ni-HAA-ri-ka” is resonant of cultural identity and strength that will persist with me forever.