In this personal narrative, the author reflects on their experience of grappling with identity and belonging. She discusses how growing up in a diverse environment as an army brat in northeast India, where Hindi and English were the predominant languages she decides to change her given name.
What’s in a name, you ask? I’d say, everything.
Growing up I had what you’d call an identity crisis of some sort. Not the kind of confusion one associate the word “identity crisis” with these days. I’m perfectly in tune with my gender identity. However, I did go through a phase during my mid-teens, influenced by an all-girls convent school environment coupled with the popularity of Hip-Hop music back then which resulted in me strutting around in baggy pants decked with chains, and a bandana tied around the wrist. Picture Pink, Nelly Furtado, or any rapper of the early 2000s. That’s what I looked like. Thankfully it was a temporary phase, and I came out (no pun intended) of that phase the very instant a guy showed genuine interest in me. I’ll keep the details of this story for my next article.
What I meant by an identity crisis is that I never really felt I belonged with my people. The fact that I am a Mizo didn’t sit right with me, and I mean no disrespect to my beloved community with that statement. I have a valid reason for having felt that way. My fellow army brats, especially those from northeast India, will identify with this. We grew up speaking every language but our own. We went to either an English medium school or the army and Central schools with Hindi and English as our lingua franca around the neighbourhood. I did not have a single Mizo friend in my school, at least none that stuck with me for good. I did grow up with two friends with whom I’m still in touch, but they both are fellow army kids and aren’t better off than I am when it comes to this matter. In fact, I think I have a better diction of our mother tongue than they do, despite them being settled in Aizawl, the heart of Mizoram.
We attended an Assam regiment-run church where services, prayers, Bible reading, and recitation were all done in Hindi, which was the common language there. This is because in the army quarters, you will have families from all over the country, people who speak different languages and you only have Hindi as a medium of communication, whether you like it or not. I ended up making friends with people from all over the country and I enjoyed every bit of it.
I also happen to be somebody who absorbs and learns anything easily, be it language, behaviour, or mannerisms (except mathematical concepts!). I do credit my Papa for teaching me the basics of Hindi, but I learned the biggest chunk of the language from movies and songs, tv serials, and commercials. I not only picked the language, I realised, most times I imitate the behaviour, mannerisms, and all the other nuances of the tv personalities. This is where my identity crisis stems from. My childhood aspiration to become a TV personality also has a lot to do with this. Since there was no representation of my people on cable, it did not reach me even if there was, I identified more with Kareena Kapoor’s overtly dramatic Pooh, VJ Anushka, Lara Dutta, and the like.
This leads me to the story of how I got myself a “fancy” English name in an attempt to clone a new identity for myself. My birth name isn’t ‘Rebecca’. I have an average Mizo name with a positive meaning, but one that is too long and phonetically too complicated to pronounce for non-Mizo speakers. My friends and teachers often butchered my name mercilessly and I hated that! The name ‘Lalrinmuani Kingbawl’ didn’t suit my personality, I thought. “Why couldn’t my parents have given me a fancier name like ‘Rachel’ or ‘Veronica’?’, I’d muse. So, I came home one day and demanded to be called by the name “Rebecca”. If I remember correctly, this was when Rebecca Saimawii, a famous Mizo singer, was at her peak of fame. (Spot the irony yet?) I’d often hear folks drop this name while talking about Mizo singers. My father, in particular, was a music lover who’d play songs with the cassette player at the highest volume. That was also his way of waking the house up soon as the sun rose. Fauji wale hates two things, I’ve observed: late risers and dal. I digress yet again.
So, when I came home adorning a new name, my parents were amused for sure, and a little confused, too. I’d have friends come home to invite me, “Rebecca”, to play and my mother in her utmost confusion would tell them that no Rebecca lived here. I’d be in the corner, trying to evade my friends’ judging glares while I held on to every ounce of self-respect I had left. What? I simply wanted to fit in! I held on to my new name though, for I thought it suited me so much! I genuinely believe it adds to my personality, with no disrespect to my original name. I think it helped me carve for myself a new identity of sorts and the people around me eventually grew to embrace it, too. Although I will never match up to the singing prowess of the Mizo diva, Rebecca Saimawii, I feel content in having successfully created a space for myself with the name she inspired.
Even today, I still stand by my decision of having adopted that name. I’ve saved many people a tongue-twisting ordeal trying to pronounce my longer name. I’d rather they don’t know my full name than butcher it. Having said that, I have learned to embrace myself, especially my root and my origin. I’m still an active Hindi and English user and enjoy learning newer aspects of the languages, but I’m also getting in tune with my mother tongue and its embedded cultural notions. Sometimes, I still feel that I don’t fit in with my people, but I have never disrespected my culture. It’s simply just the environment I grew up in, the situation over the years, and the popular culture I consciously chose to lean towards. If Rajiv Bhatia can become the superstar Akshay Kumar, and Norma Jean Baker can become the iconic Marilyn Monroe, I think what I did to my name is pretty justified.
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Rebecca is passionate about languages. She works as a language instructor at a college in Tura, Meghalaya while pursuing her PhD in Linguistics. It is her love for reading, writing, and story telling which has inspired her to put her thoughts to pen and paper.