About two years ago, I met a DNC trainer who was of Indian heritage. He told an anecdote about Bobby Jindal, who is pretty actively despised by most of the Asian Americans I know. Anyway, he related how every time he sees Jindal, he yells, “Hey, Piyush!”
“Piyush” is Jindal’s given name. He’s chosen to use “Bobby.”
I had mixed feelings as I listened to this anecdote. It made me laugh, because it was intended to remind Jindal of his heritage. But by the same token, I was more than a little uncomfortable. I knew that it was something that I would never choose to do. And inside the confines of the Asian American community, I thought that perhaps this anecdote was acceptable.
Now I’m not so sure.
Recently I’ve seen many references to Bobby Jindal as “Piyush,” and they strike me as being similar to the way people referred to Obama as Barack Hussein Obama. It’s used as a way to otherize. You know, because it’s such a funny foreign name.
And it’s also used to mark Jindal as a sell-out.
I keep changing my opinions about names, so I’m not sure where I stand any more. But I do believe that people should be called by the name they prefer. So if I ever get to a first-name basis with Jindal, I’ll call him “Bobby.”
There are lots of Asian Americans who have assumed “American” names. They do so for any of a number of reasons. Sometimes it’s because it makes gender identification clearer. Sometimes it’s because they got tired of people mispronouncing their names. Sometimes it’s just easier. Sometimes they identify with their English-speaking selves. Sometimes it’s because they think it will be beneficial for their employment. (Although I’d note that if you want people to think you speak English, it would be more helpful to have a skin and face transplant than to change your name.)
I’m sure there are many other reasons. I wouldn’t presume to judge which of these are okay reasons and which aren’t.
On the other hand, I am really tired of white people telling me that Asians “always” change their names. Because that is definitely not true. And why is it so important to tell me this?
I have one Indian friend who is routinely annoyed by white people asking her what her “real name” is. Her real name is the name she introduces herself by. But for some reason people can’t seem to fathom that might be the case.
I am pleased that we have a governor whose first name is “Piyush.” I just wish it weren’t Bobby Jindal.