The Curious Evolution Of My Indian Name
Anju Treohan poses for a portrait in her apartment in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on May 13.
Atfirstglance, my name appears simple enough, as far as words go: Anju. Four letters. Two syllables. One would think the pronunciation would be straightforward, but in Western cultures, it is not. And that reality has led to a range of pronunciations for me to choose from.
When I watched Saoirse Ronan, the Irish American actor best known for her roles in “Lady Bird” and “Little Women,” explain how to say her name in a recent interview, I could immediately relate. As a first-generation Indian American born in Queens, generally speaking, I don’t have much in common with Ronan. But in this way I am deeply familiar with her experience — not just with the exercise of patiently performing my name but in receiving the feedback, “I don’t hear the difference” when demonstrating it in various accents: On-joo vs. Onh-ju vs. Un-ju, and so on.
Though Ronan believes there is a correct way to pronounce her name, I believe there are many ways to say my name correctly. I don’t speak any languages outside of English, but do feel a strong connection with my Indian ethnicity. And so, for me, the pronunciation of my name is flexible. The variations, rather than depicting a falsehood, are on an honest spectrum of my multicultural identity.
Treohan writes out the different ways her name is said phonetically.
Growing up in 1980s Augusta, Georgia, I was Anne-joo—courtesy of my elementary school teachers. On the first day of school, I dreaded the long pause during attendance every time a new teacher scanned their classroom of white, middle-class youths until finding me. A scrawny, brown girl with bangs in her eyes. Unh-ju, I’d offer into the silence, my entire body caving in — as if by making the target of my physical self smaller the impact of my embarrassment would also be smaller.
Unable to mimic my quiet intonation, after a few tries my teachers landed on a stuttered A-chew, An-chew, Anne-joo. That was sufficient. I was happy to accept any speedy execution, or even a complete dismissal, of my name rather than draw attention to its awkwardness. Heather, Dawn, Karen: These were the names of the girls in my classes. Anne-joo didn’t belong in the chorus of roll call.
At Georgia Tech, I announced myself as Onh-ju, gifting my name with some softer elements. Perhaps, I was emboldened by the spirit of college experimentation. More likely, the evolution was due to a gentle confidence and self-assuredness I intuited now among a heftier population of South Asians and Asians. Even still, people rarely said my name, and I rarely said it specifically.
Then, my junior year as a teaching assistant for a computer science class, I had a moment of redemption. I remember standing before my peers introducing myself, saying my name aloud, Onh-ju, the first syllable sliding into the other in a smooth transition like it was the most natural thing in the world. Not wanting to let go of the feeling, I instinctively turned and wrote the phonetical pronunciation on the white board alongside the official spelling, for emphasis — and instruction.
"Ironically, my mom, a South Indian from Hyderabad, and my Punjabi dad immigrated from Delhi to the U.S. after marrying and were proud of themselves for mindfully choosing short Indian names that Americans would find 'easy' to say."
To my parents, or Indians of their generation, I am unequivocally Un-JU. Two palpably masculine syllables strung together in tight sequence. As a child, I hated that my name ended in a u. Itseemed like a boy’s name and that became the basis of my first battles with my parents.
One evening, as a fourth grader, I marched up to my dad and yelled, “Why did you give me such a stupid name?” Fraught with despair, my anger collapsed into a stream of tears. My father turned off the TV and looked at me, unable to comprehend my struggle. “Anju is a such a cute name,” he said, trying to explain the name’s sweet and endearing context in India. I didn’t care. I was inconsolable.
With so many beautiful and elaborate Sanskrit names that poured out of our culture — Lakshmi, Seema, Nandani, for example — why couldn’t my parents have picked one of those? Anything ending in a feminine a or i would have been acceptable. They could’ve at least done me the favor, if not the justice, of giving me one of the fuller versions of my name. Anjali. Anjana. Ironically, my mom, a South Indian from Hyderabad, and my Punjabi dad immigrated from Delhi to the U.S. after marrying and were proud of themselves for mindfully choosing short Indian names that Americans would find “easy” to say.
Treohan holds photographs of herself as a young girl.
But it’s not exactly easy, so my name code-switches on the fly. What feels right in one circumstance doesn’t necessarily feel right in another. I can be out, at a party for instance, and introduce myself as Un-ju to one person, On-ju to another, and omit my name completely when talking with someone else. Even my boyfriends were not given a consistent speech pattern to abide by. Among my South Asian friends, following some innate code of conduct, we’ll swap out the pronunciations of each other’s names. It’s comical when these groups mix and one pronunciation is confronted with another. With sheepish expressions, they look to me to referee the call — who got it right?
This growing awareness for cultural differences and the desire to want to get it right is heartwarming. Nowadays, I get the sincere and polite question posed to me more often than not: How do you say your name? A marked improvement from the de facto What a beautiful name! exclamations and What does it mean? questions that rarely came across as a compliment or with genuine interest, but as a vehicle to mask confusion, or insult. What did my name mean? I had no idea. I never thought to ask, “What does Brian (or Kate) mean?” What a ridiculous question.
A cup is decorated with the letter A in Treohan's apartment.
Mostly, I allow people a wide margin of interpretation of how to say my name. Or I’ll give them two options to choose from. On-ju orAnne-ju, both are correct, I’ll say reassuringly. This is not because it does not matter to me. I allow for their variations because, most of the time, I can and do identify with the pronunciation they have chosen — and in that way, we will have found some common ground in which we can know each other. There are exceptions, however. Occasionally people will mistake my name to contain a Spanish j, instead of a hard j, transforming it to On-who, in those types of instances I’ll correct them.
It wasn’t until my late 20s that I wholly embraced my name. I was dating an Indian guy who was passionate about graphic design — and design concepts at large. At the time, I was also expanding my small business and redesigning the logo. He was the one who helped me see my name differently. I began to gain an appreciation of its symmetry — the balance of straight lines and curves when written in clean type-faced fonts.
As I sketched out ideas, the letters not only visually pleased me but symbolically seemed made for me. The mountainous A with its bar bridging east and west. The n possibly being flipped upside down to play the part of a u. Then there was the j with its floating dot romantically wandering into the atmosphere and anchoring hook. Launching Anjuthreads, my eyebrow threading business, was a bold career statement. It had an equally bold demand — people would have to say my name. It was then that I blossomed into fully identifying with my name.
"When I say my name in my head, I hear Un-ju. Un-ju is more fragile. She is the name I call when I demand courage of myself."
On most days, I am On-ju. This is mystrongest, most versatile, most forgiving pronunciation. On-ju can walk into any room with confidence. On-ju can wear a tiny bikini, a saree or pair of jeans with an equal sense of self. Shecan embrace her heritage while opting-out of the parts of her culture that don’t serve her. It is the name I default to at work, among mixed groups, and gravitate toward.
I rarely hear Anne-joo these days but when I do, it no longer evokes the struggle I felt as a child. Instead, I recall fond memories of weekend parties with 20 or so other Indian families and the community our parents forged for us, playing in the band, and fifth period lunch.
When I say my name in my head, I hear Un-ju. Un-ju is more fragile. She is the name I call when I demand courage of myself. She is the part of me that feels unique and special and capable of bold, cinematic moves. It is the pronunciation that ties me to my family and our experiences together. It’s a name I protect but no longer shy away from. It is a name I celebrate and adore.
To those who question the authenticity of anything outside of the traditional Un-ju pronunciation, I am unbothered. My connection to my Indian ethnicity and culture is unthreatened. It follows the same simple truth Padma Lakshmi shared when asked “how [she holds] on to [her] culture in this country” and replied, “That’s easy — I live it every day.” The various pronunciations of my name —and by extension, my identities — belong to me. They are all valid and sacred to the spaces I occupy.