Inspired by the poems “The names they gave me” by Tasbeeh Herwees and “What I tell my students” by Nav K and a quote by Sathiya Sai Baba, Kamalpreet Kaur reflects on her own name and her experience in America.
I Still Remember It
by Kamalpreet Kaur
I still remember it. How I lost my name.
It was the first day of kindergarten. I am eager, small, brown and 5 with two braids.
I speak English still mixed with Punjabi. My parents are impressed with how fast I have picked up. I speak just like a gori they say.
Mrs. Smarts has hair like a little cloud with eyes the color of the sky. We have all been given desks with our names written on cards neatly taped down. Mrs. Smarts goes around the classroom saying each person’s name and gives them a sparkly star sticker for coming to the first day of kindergarten. I cannot wait to get a sticker!
When she asks me my name, I reply, “Kamalpreet Kaur”. She looks at me confused and tries to say it, it comes out all wrong. “Kamalpreet Kaur,” I say again.
“No”, I say, “KAMALPREET KAUR….you can call me KAMAL.”
“Kay..mal…,” she cannot say it. Her American tongue refuses to taste the unique flavor of my name. It is not used to bending in the intricate dance of a Punjabi tongue, required in order to pronounce the hard and soft parts of my name.
“Let’s call you Kuh-mall,” she says.
“No!” I reply, “That’s not how you say my name.”
I try to pronounce my name and explain, I do not remember if I say this in Punjabi or English or both. All eyes are on me. I keep trying to get her to say my name. To understand. But all she says is “Kuh-mall” and places a pink sparkly star sticker on my hand before moving on to the next student.
A girl with short yellow hair next to me puts her sticker on her name card. I look to do the same but there is no room, my name fills out the entire card with it’s 14 letter glory.
It is the name all non-Punjabis will know me by for the next 16 years of my academic life. “Kuh-mall” “A name with no grace, no meaning, no history; it belongs to no language.” It sounds ugly to my 5 year old self but it will be the name I come to prefer. The name I correct teachers with. The name I ask them to call me. I will prefer it over “camelpree”… “kaymall” and will rush to say it before someone can even attempt pronouncing Kamalpreet.
But it is not my name. Over the years, when I heard it come out of my mouth, I tasted its falseness, felt its hallowness. And yet I kept it.
Not anymore. My name is Kamalpreet Kaur. Say it.
A true Punjabi name. 14 letters long in written English. A strong, solid name. A name that demands your attention. I have taught my tongue how to speak the entire English language; the least you can do is learn how to say my name properly. I will make sure you do. My name has meaning, substance. It means lotus flower.
A Lotus unfolds its petals when the sun rises in the sky, unaffected by the slush where it is born or even the water which sustains it. Like a lotus I will be unyielding.