What’s in a Name?

I grew up in a very homogeneous suburb of Michigan.  My graduating class was all white- seriously, every single one of us.  My knowledge of other races and cultures wasn’t very strong, through no fault of my parents- how can you really teach something that doesn’t exist in your community?  You can talk about it, but it’s hard to make that conversation a reality.  Fast forward ten years, and I am in a mixed-race marriage, living in the incredibly diverse town of Providence, where people of all races, cultures and religions mix freely (many thanks to Brown University for the healthy mix) and trying to understand how to raise two mixed-race children.

Here’s what got me thinking about this subject- the following scenario plays out on a daily basis, and it’s hard to know how to handle it.  I will get stopped while in line at the coffee shop, or while at the playground or library, and someone will ask, “Your baby is adorable.  What’s his name?”  To which I will reply, “Vikram.”  Then comes the blank stare.  Every single time…a blank stare, a pause and then some attempt at recovery.  “Oh, how nice.  Well he is certainly cute!”  I’m never sure what to say (our boys do not look Indian, which adds to the confusion)- should I explain that my husband is Indian, and Vikram is a very common Indian name?  Should I just say thanks, smile and walk away, despite the awkwardness?

I only ran into this reaction a few times pre-Vik since Vijay is a pretty easy name for people to understand.  Most think it is V.J.- a nickname of sorts.  Either way, it is easy for people to recognize and pronounce.  My husband and I put so much thought into our boy’s names- we know they will be going to school here in the States, so it was important that their names be easy for people to say, to avoid frustration and potential ridicule.  Vijay is a family name, meaning victory.  Vikram, also a family name, means valor.  They are beautiful, strong names that I hope will be fitting for my boys.  But it is beginning to hit me- they will have a lifetime of answering questions surrounding their names.  I can’t really help them with this from my personal experience, so it is my duty to better educate myself on how to guide them on this part of their journey.  How do I begin imparting to them how their diversity makes them unique and special, how it is an honor to be linked to a place as indescribable and awe-inspiring as India?  How do I make them proud of their family background and histroy?  I know that one day soon we will travel to India with our boys, and introduce them to this half of their make-up.  Until then, I wrestle with the question of how to guide my boys when it comes to the question of who they are.

*photos from our earlier photo shoot with Heidi of White Loft Studio.

19 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Anonymous

    You say that Providence is an incredibly diverse place to live and yet you get blank stares when you mention Vikram's name? The Brown University mentality must not have any trickle down effect into the general population if a name like Vikram stops people in their tracks. It is a diverse population where I live and children in the local elementary school have names like Pei-Jean, Fan, Hung, Feng, Sameer, Caiya, etc. and no one bats an eyelash. Just smile at the dolts and bid them a fine afternoon!

  2. Anonymous

    My own son's name is unlike anyone else's, even without an ethnic origin such as your sons', and I never explain unless asked. Then, when those who ask get the answer, they smile and understand. I think it's a normal reaction to an uncommon name!

  3. Anonymous

    Don't sweat it! I gaurantee that people will make dumb-sounding comments about whatever makes you different, be it name or appearance! Don't worry about what other people say or think because you cannot control that. All you have to do is raise your kids to be confident in who they are as you discover that together 🙂

  4. Amy

    For whatever it's worth, I'd say tell them your beautiful son's beautiful name, smile and walk away. The awkwardness is the stranger's, not yours; and it's good to teach kids that.

    But, if you feel bad for the other person (which you needn't, but I can understand how you might, just because you are so kind), then I'd say something like, “Vikram is a name from our family.” It is affirmative and it gives the other person a chance to get a grip, because sheesh! by now people shouldn't bat a single eyelash over any name choice for any baby.

  5. Julia

    I think that any unique names get questionable stares, whether ethnic or not. My son's name is Eben and I frequently get asked about it's origin.
    I rarely explain the story behind it.

    When it comes to naming kids, the choice is a very personal one. All that matters is that it is to your choosing and that you thought it fitting for your kids.

    Kids these days are growing up with peers with names such as Apple, Mowgli. Gulliver, and Camera.

    I wouldn't even sweat it. Truly, they are right for you and that is all that matters.

  6. Sassamadoo

    On one hand, I suppose it's no one's business and it's their deal to get over it. On the other hand, you can use those situations as an opportunity to help someone else learn something new. “His name is Vikram, it's an Indian name from my husband's family. It means valor. We love that it's unique and meaningful.”

    You explained it nicely in the post, no reason not to extend that into real life.

  7. Becky

    I have been married to an amazing man (of another race) for 14 years now and we share two beautiful children. We both worried about how to represent our race, our culture, and our family to them without making such a big deal about the obvious differences between the two. What we have noticed over the years is that open, honest communication and an atmosphere of tolerance for what we may not know or be comfortable with is necessary to raising any child, especially one with the unique challenge of being biracial. They let us know when they're feeling different and we reassure them every time that every one is different in some way and that's what makes this world so beautiful. They have grown to proudly embrace their names and their backgrounds and I'm sure your sweet boys will too.

  8. Anonymous

    I always thought you had made such clever name choices precisely because both boys have names that can be biracial, too. As you said, one SOUNDS like VJ and the other can be Vik. To the people who matter, you, and later the boys, will explain the family significance of their strong names and to everyone else, they are beautiful boys with beautiful parents and very cool nick names.


  9. Anonymous

    I think having a unique name is a gift! I am a woman named Elliotte. I know that blank stare all too well! From it I have learned patience, conversation, pride, presence, and humor. I like to think the unique-named folks can stretch the world-view of those who come from a place of homogeny. At the very least your boys won't get mixed up with many other people! Blessings nonetheless!!

  10. Eileen

    I too am raising two biracial boys, and though we gave them English first names, they have both a Hawaiian and Japanese middle name to honor their family & where their Dad grew up. So they get some confused looks occasionally too (though probably not as often as you) – especially since those middle names are kind of hard to pronounce.

    I think sharing the meaning of your little guys' names is a great idea!

  11. Heather

    I don't think most kids will even bat an eyelash at the names of your handsome boys. When they are little they really just want to play. The adults may be uncomfortable to ask further about their names because they are afraid to impose. It's harder to communicate normally these days b/c of all the political correctness going on. People either over share, or they are afraid to say the wrong thing, so they keep quiet. No matter what, there is no need for you to worry about others reactions. They are the perfect names for your boys b/c you and your husband chose them with love.

  12. Anonymous

    I agree with all of the above. Your sons will be proud of themselves because YOU are proud of them and it will have nothing to do with their names. You and your husband love each other and your boys and so they will feel that, not any reactions about their names…..they will be comfortable in their own skins because you are comfortable. They won't see any difference between themselves and you….you are one FAMILY. You are a lovely person and your extended family is lovely…..I wouldn't think too much on it….you'll be busy running, playing and watching your sons grow into handsome, loving men.

  13. becca ann

    I love this post. I am from a mixed family and we all mixed very differently thus we navigate the world outside of our family and community in a variety of ways as it relates to our ethnic background. My partner is from yet another ethnic background and so if/when we have children they will be quite the cultural mash up! When we've discussed this and when I've reflected on it in a more solitary state I find myself referring back to my childhood. I grew up in Los Angeles in a very diverse community, comprised of many mixed families probably much like Providence. Even in the context of that community though I would, or other members of my family, would be given the blank stares, awkward pauses, or outright seemingly rude questions relating to our heritage, similar to the ones that you are describing. I think that the thing that helped me the most growing up was that my family and their friends were always an absolutely safe space for me to land. I belonged without question in my family and friend community.

    I also reflect on messages that my family gave me about race/ethnicity to help me navigate through the sometimes complicated realities of straddling cultures. It was always made clear that both of my heritages were equally important and rich. I heard that I was loved a lot and beautiful, which I believe warded off the self image critique that is so sadly and commonly found in people of mixed ethnicity when they are young. I also was told repeatedly that awkward stares, comments, or pauses are opportunities to either teach, be taught, or just to exist graciously. It was made clear to me that it was not my responsibility to educate others about being multi-ethnic, but that if I wanted to take the extra step and explain my background that on the whole most people would be richer for it and I would be richer in the telling. My mom really modeled this never being unkind, but being very concrete in her answers, “This is our background…We celebrate it in this way….What is your background?” I was told that my heritage is part of my story that I get to hold in whatever way I want to hold it. I got to own it and thus I did not feel alienated or threatened when others had questions, didn't understand, or made insensitive comments. When you know that you belong to yourself and you belong in your family you are like all people still susceptible to the pains of being “different”, but I believe you are more resilient.

    My family also filled up my childhood with stories about people of different ethnic backgrounds, different struggles communities faced for equality, accomplishments of other mixed race people, and from a young age I knew about Virginia v. Loving. Of course I had no idea as a child what a court case was, how huge it was in its legalization of interracial marriage, or how brave the Loving family was. I knew though that there was a mixed family that somehow came before my family and allowed us to together and because of that we had a picture of them in our house. I was inundated with role models.

    I believe that when we have a sense of belonging somewhere that is when our differences can become our becoming. I was clearer in my identity because I had to think about my identity from a younger age than many. I got to imagine a creative life for myself in part because I straddled multiple cultures. I learned how to talk to people in awkward situations in a clear and kind way, which is a skill set that I am profoundly thankful for. When I think about your beautiful boys and their names I think that growing up biracial/multi-ethnic will help them, in the context of your loving family, to really develop the characteristics that their names embody. Sometimes being “different” in a noticeable way (I note this because we are all different) is confusing, but with the help of loving family and friends I think it can call out of us high levels of honor, integrity, kindness, self reflection, creativity and indeed valor and victory.

  14. Malena

    Christine – I have a great book that describes what children understand about race and diversity at the different developmental stages and how you can explain the different concepts to them. It lists common questions that kids ask and has an example of an answer. I got it from Tolerance.org many years ago when I thought I was going to be a teacher. I can't think of the name now, but I have it in my office and can look it up for you.

    Also, some of my biracial friends like the MAVIN foundation and I anticipate that they will be a great resource for me when I have kids some day!

  15. Christine

    Hi Christine,
    I'm in the same kind of marriage and also have 2 children (ages 6 and 9). All that I can say is to continue to be comfortable in who you are. In time as the children grow, you won't think twice about it. If you live in a diverse area, your kids will never feel different. When my kids were very little and people would ask their names, I would immediately add “They are East Indian names”. That usually cut away why mom is blonde hair and blue-eyes and they are the exact opposite. But as time went on, I realized that I didn't need to add the little educational footnote. I just smiled and appeared friendly and open if they wanted to ask more then that was their choice.

    Your children are gorgeous! 🙂

  16. Anonymous

    I am from Argentina (Spanish speaking country) and my name is Jennifer. My parents just liked that name! Growing up I got a lot of those stares and I just wished having a normal Spanish name like my friends. Now I live in the US and my name works perfect, but I named my daughter in Spanish and I get a lot of those stares again (I know, I should probably discuss it with my therapist!).
    Anyway, I don't care, it's not a big deal. The people who care about my daughter learned her name. I just “americanize” it when someone stops me at the grocery store so I don't have to explain the whole story again and again.

  17. Gk Threek

    My kids have unusual names and I love telling strangers their origin. And more importantly people love to hear it! If someone gives you the quiet, confused face, assume they don't understand and tell them it's indian and what it means! Most of the time they'll love it! I find most people feel awkward not because they think you have a weird name, but because they feel dumb for not understanding or knowing the name. Think positively of the people around and you and they'll surprise you!

  18. Lets

    I'd say Vikram like Vikram Seth, a bestselling author!

    I am Indian with a Spanish/Black first name(depending on how you pronounce it) and a portuguese last name.
    I get questioned about it every day, I just give them the whole history lesson when in the mood and on my bad days i just smile and nod politely and walk away.


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