I am Anushka Thorat, a high school sophomore, and I am a strong believer in the power of words to affect real change and turn spaces into active and socially just communities. I serve on the Legislative subcommittee of GradMinnesota (a movement working to reduce the high school dropout rate in conjunction with the Minnesota Department of Education) and am a member of Backpack tutoring (a tutoring program that helps red-zoned children in underfunded schools). I am also deeply involved with Girl Up (an organization that supports UN programs promoting the health, safety, education, and leadership of girls in developing countries), UNICEF, and Interact in my local community and am a founder and president of Stand With Her, a non-profit that works to provide feminine hygiene products to young women in domestic and sexual violence centers in addition to high schools in need of them. By being a part of Redefy, I hope to use my voice and time to benefit communities in any way that I can.
Anushka isn’t a family name. In fact, it’s not even a religious name. My parents named me Anushka in their one bedroom apartment along a congested street in India because Anushka was an international name.
When I probed them for answers after being ridiculed for having a “meaningless” name in the United States, they would explain to me that they named me Anushka because everyone around the world could say it, even Americans. They picked it so that I wouldn’t have to change my name to fit into the mouths of my friends and teachers.
I spent the first thirteen years of my life in India, and when my parents decided to shift continents to pursue the immigrant’s dream, the only trinket of my past life I carried with me my was my name.
I held it close to me because, in the whirlwind of changes I faced, it was the one thing that provided me comfort in its certainty.
I felt that it would make me unique, because my father told me that there wouldn’t be other Anushkas in my new classroom like there had been in India, and that made me feel special.
But it was a different kind of special when teachers twisted my name during roll call without a second thought, and when new friends in my classrooms would forget my name, remembering only that it was “something exotic.” I grew to hate my name because of the sea of questions I would have to answer and the number of times I would have to repeat it, eventually having to spell it out at least twice. I drowned in mispronunciations and misspelled certificates and papers and eventually gave up on correcting people. My debate coach entered my name as Anna for tournaments because it would make it easier for him and the judges, and my friends felt it convenient to swap Anushka for Anne.
And so when my parents confirmed that Anushka was an international name, I didn’t believe them.
Immigrants and children of immigrants let go of their cultures, rituals, and homes in search of better opportunities. Struggling for acceptance, they spend their entire lives in a constant, desperate attempt at assimilation. They celebrate different festivals, eat different dishes and live different lives. They mold and crack for acceptance, and so when a teacher finds their name strange, and classmates taunt it for being different, it makes the bridge connecting them to their new cultures even wider.
Our names are the first things given to us that are truly ours- our very first sense of identity. Every thought we think and every word we breathe in our lives builds toward this identity, and our name grows more intertwined with it.
Mocking us for our names forces us to shed the remnants of our culture like a second skin and causes us to leave a piece of our identity locked up and left behind. It makes us feel invalid, and our origins forgotten. For some of us, our names are the only fragments of our heritage we can hold onto, and unfortunately, neglect and insults compel us to let these pieces go.
This problem primarily results from dismissing and ignoring the vibrant cultures within communities, and as a society, we must pay more attention to the heritage of those around us to eradicate the toxicity that stems from casual negligence. Simply determining how learners from other cultures would like to be treated, checking assumptions about learners of different ethnicities and asking for feedback on communication skills shows consideration of other people’s worldviews and beliefs.
Making it a priority to pronounce and spell names correctly can foster a sense of inclusivity and belonging that is often denied to many and can generate a sense of respect for the cultural identities of those around us. Effectively communicating with diverse audiences from different cultural backgrounds is an incredibly essential aspect of being a globally competent society.