Behind the name: Students grapple with their unusual names

October 26, 2016 — by Chelsea Leung and Katherine Zhou

Students struggle to accept their given names.

After preparing for months, students in Math Club were eager to begin the February 2015 AMC math competition. When it was time to start, they quickly flipped open the questions packet and began reading the problems, but one student stood out: then sophomore and now senior Balakumaran Balasubramanian, who was still bubbling in his name.

It’s easy to see why filling out his name takes him so long on forms and why Balasubramanian goes by the nickname “Bala Bala.” When his parents named him Balakumaran, they did not realize the large impact it would have on his life. Instead, they simply based his name on tradition.

“In South Indian tradition, a guru looks at star alignments, and during that particular day that you’re born, there is a certain sound that should be in your name,” Balasubramanian said. “So for my first name, it should have been ‘Ba,’ and my last name was taken from my dad. I don’t think [my parents] actually thought about [the alliteration in my name] at the time; it was more coincidental.”

In his freshman year, Balasubramanian initially disliked having his name called during attendance due to the frequent mispronunciations, especially since his name is so long that it does not fit on the roll call sheet.

Similarly, sophomore Angela Poo, whose last name has also caused her to stand out, dislikes roll call.

“I pray that the teacher won’t say my last name because it makes me feel embarrassed and afraid that someone might laugh or comment on it,” Poo said.

Poo’s last name is Chinese and is usually spelled “Pwu,” but her grandfather spelled it as “Poo” when translating the family name while immigrating to Botswana.

Poo said that although her last name does not affect her life on a daily basis, she often feels ashamed when spelling her name out loud or introducing herself to others.

“Lots of people have treated me differently, but I don’t think they meant to hurt my feelings,” Poo said. “I don’t love [my last name], but I’ve accepted that it’s something that I was born with.”

One memorable episode occurred when Poo’s first-grade teacher was reading aloud everyone’s names. When Poo’s name was called, one of her classmates stood up and loudly announced to the entire class, including the teacher, that her last name was a bad word.

“I laughed because of how stupid he sounded,” Poo said.

Senior Kailee Donez, who goes by the nickname “Kai,” also initially felt embarrassment because of his first name when he was in elementary school, especially since it sounds like the often-female name “Kylie.”

“My parents chose my name because they wanted to have something that wasn’t necessarily generic or too ethnically oriented in some way,” Donez said. “The name Kailee has both Chinese and Hawaiian origins, as it means ‘ocean’ in Hawaiian and ‘victorious’ [in Chinese].”

Compared to Donez and Balasubramanian, Poo has encountered many more difficulties with a unique last name. When Poo attempted to make a Facebook account the summer before freshman year, Facebook barred her from using her real last name, saying it was “inappropriate,” and Poo resorted to substituting “Pwu” for “Poo.” Because of this, her classmates have asked whether she is related to former music teacher Jonathan Pwu or if she changed her last name.

However, unlike Poo, Balasubramanian has had a positive experience in creating his Facebook. When he first created his Facebook account in his freshman year, he chose to put the name, “Bala Bala,” instead of his full name, gaining him schoolwide recognition as many noticed his interesting name and wanted to get to know him in person.

“It’s a good icebreaker, because when people talk to me, they say, ‘Oh you’re Bala Bala, I’ve seen you around from Facebook before,’” Balasubramanian said.

Despite feeling shame sometimes, Poo has learned to accept her last name, seeing it as “unique and funny,” and does not plan to change it in the future.

Balasubramanian has also learned to appreciate the benefits of his name, although he tries to prevent his name from defining him completely.

“Sometimes, people end up knowing you just for your name, and some people would rather be defined by a unique quality, interest or talent,” Balasubramanian said. “But it’s a lot easier to talk to people because if you have a weird name, they have a topic to talk to you about already.”

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