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Indian Expat Parent: What's in a Name?

Published on: December 30, 2013

nametagwords“Mom, Rosy asked me to bring this to you,” my daughter said, thrusting a letter into my hands.

“Wait, isn’t Rosy your teacher?” I asked, confused.

“Yeah, silly,” she said and laughed it off.

This simple conversation left me befuddled and hurt. My daughter had addressed her teacher by her first name — that confused me. And she went on to call me silly — that hurt me. Just give me a minute and I’ll explain my predicament.

You see, in India, especially in the south, teachers are revered, along with parents and God. “Mata, Pita, Guru, Daivam” is an age-old adage that explains the essential order of reverence or respect a person should show the people who impact his or her life. The mother comes first (yay!) — she is the first person in a child’s life and is the one who introduces the father. The mother and father later entrust the child into the teacher’s hands to create a fulfilling future for their offspring. It is through the teacher that the child reaches God.

In Indian culture, addressing teachers (who are essentially considered knowledge-givers and scholars) by name is an insult to the teacher and shows a profound lack of manners in the child. The upbringing of such an ill-mannered child is always questioned in our society. And so, I was taken aback by my daughter’s irreverence to her educator. I immediately felt defensive.

Was I bringing up an ill-mannered child?

When I was young, I was taught to address my peers by their first names. But anyone older, even by a day, had to be addressed as an older sibling: Bhaiya — big brother, or Didi — big sister.

If the age difference is large — 10 years or more, I was taught to call them ‘Aunty’ or ‘Uncle.’

My parents insisted on this practice. We respect our elders. We respect age, even if the older person believes that their little village is the center of the universe and there’s no life beyond the 20-km radius. This is the expected decorum. It’s how a well-brought-up child would communicate in a social setting.

And here, my kid was abandoning courtesy and resorting to disrespect by calling her Guru, who was clearly older, by her given name.

I gave a big lecture to my little girl and apologized to Miss Rosy at the next available opportunity. “Oh, she was calling me ‘Ma’am’” Miss Rosy confirmed as I noticed her using air quotes for the M word. “But I asked her to call me Rosy. I prefer that.

“But, using your first name, you’re her teacher . . . ” I said, still puzzled.

“It is my name, right?” she said, just as puzzled. “Ma’am makes me feel too old.”

So, my daughter continues to call her Rosy. I didn’t want her to challenge her teacher’s preference.

However, all hell broke loose at our next Skyping session with my parents in India. DD called my mother by her first name.

And it doesn’t end there. She then called my mother “silly Jaya.”

“Princess, could you go get your new toy to show us?” Dad said to DD. “Yay! Yes Ganeshan,” she replied as she jumped off the chair to go search for a new toy.

I knew it was my turn for the lecture.

Dad started off expressing his dissatisfaction with the way I was bringing up his princess, his Raajaati. “You’re forgetting your upbringing,” he started. “Do you want your child to be mocked and ridiculed behind her back?”

The word ‘silly’ may seem trivial and inconsequential here, but back home it’s a heavily loaded word. You cannot go around calling people silly. It’s like calling somebody ‘stupid’ or telling them that you don’t value their opinion or their views.

Even if you don’t really value their opinions, you don’t go around telling them that.

So the rule in the house now is that DD cannot call anybody from India or anyone older than her by their first name — unless they tell her otherwise. She has seen that we prostrate at the feet of our elders, and she knows that we revere them. And of course, they are never to be called “silly.”

Given the fact that DD is surrounded by 4-year-olds who constantly call each other “silly” and “crazy,”’ said rule becomes difficult to adhere to.

But, we’ve found a solution: We’ve asked her to replace the word “silly” with “funny.” Because “funny” can also be construed as a compliment, nobody’s feelings are hurt. She still gets to say “silly Billy” and “crazy Mazy,” just not when a certain Billy or a real Mazy are around.

193Padmaja Ganeshan-Singh is a new expat from India and a rookie Superwoman. This is her first time managing her family without any help and boy, does she have newfound respect for the American woman. She is the mother of a high-energy preschooler who presents her with the challenges of preserving the culture of her homeland while embracing the culture of her new home in Seattle. From driving on the 'right' side of the road to understanding the craze behind Halloween candy, Padmaja's trying to make meaning out of the madness around her. For a peep into her expat life, check her blog .

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