What’s in a (Starbucks) Name?

What’s your name?

Sean.

Is that with an “ea” or an “haw”?

Ummm… An “ea.” S-E-A-N.

Sean (or, Shawn) is my Starbucks name.

I’m not the only Indian, Asian, or brown person who has a Starbucks name. I don’t like it, but I tell myself that I’m doing it out of convenience. It’s easier. I won’t have to spell out my name. They won’t butcher it with their spelling or pronunciation. I’m not holding up the line. Those who are listening will see I’ve accepted the American way. I’m no threat to anyone. Plus, it’s convenient. I just want a chai or latte. (I’ll even call it a “chai tea latte,” even though that’s redundant and I just ordered a “tea tea latte.”) Why create a hassle for the barista or me and turn an order that only needs five seconds into an extended minute with the correct name and spelling? Yeah, let’s go with Sean.

I used my real name at a Starbucks in Philly last week. I even spelled it out for the barista. It’s still misspelled.

My name’s not Sean. It’s Nishant. N-I-S-H-A-N-T. That’s how I spell it. NISHA = Night and ANT = end. End of night, dawn. My parents also liked to say when I was young that they took letters from their names, Nitin and Harsha (NI + SHA), and added the “ANT” to signify that there’d be no more children for them. I’m the second of two children of Nitin and Harsha Mehta.

Only a few can pronounce my name correctly here. They’ll usually put the stress on the first syllable and end with a hard “t” sound. When pronounced correctly, the stress is on the second syllable and it ends with a “th” sound, the “h” almost unheard. I didn’t correct people for my first few years in the United States. Well-meaning individuals would usually apologize before or after and seek my forgiveness. I’d try and teach them, if they asked. Some would get it, although it didn’t always last long. Their facial habits and accents, long established, would regress to the first syllable emphasis and a hard “t” sound. For a while, I wondered whether I should adopt, as so many Indians and East Asians had, a Western name. Gaurav became George. Mithun became Matt. Should Nishant become Sean?

I never did, although I’ve thought about the name change quite a bit. My name is the one piece of me that still belongs to my heritage and to my family. Few things still fit in that category now. I’m an American citizen now and I’ve renounced Indian citizenship. We didn’t really have much of a choice since India doesn’t allow dual citizenship. I could be Indian or American, not Indian American. I didn’t think much of renouncing the citizenship, but I don’t think I can renounce my name. I won’t be Nishant and Sean. Nishant has a meaning, it has a story that connects to my immigrant roots. Sean has no story. Sean is convenient, Sean is not connected to anyone but a barista at a Starbucks. So I reject the change each time.

Recently, I’ve stopped giving Sean to the barista. I still do it but not as frequently anymore. I will give my real name and spell it out. I‘m tired of giving up my power and my identity for the sake of convenience. I can’t preach about belonging if I can’t accept who I am in front of everyone, even strangers. Those few seconds when I place the order tell others who I am. They won’t know the story behind my name, they won’t know the meaning of it, but when they call out “Sean,” I just know that it’s not me.

Four years ago, in February 2016, I interviewed someone for the Controller position in our business office. Sitting across from me on the couch in my office, I asked him my first question, “Willie, actually, is that what you prefer to be called?” He hesitated for a moment and then shared he prefers to be called Tim. Willie’s his first name and Timothy his middle, and while at work for the past 28 years he had been Willie, at home and with family and close friends, he’s known as Tim. I asked him what he’d prefer if he came to TCS. He said, “Tim.” I wondered at the time what it’d mean for someone, for so long, to go by a name other than how they identify. How did Tim feel when his work friends and colleagues called him Willie? At least Tim and Willie are names he was given at birth.

All this time, my reasons for using Sean have blamed others. It’s convenient. I’m making it easy. I won’t have to hear them butcher it, and they won’t feel embarrassed for getting it wrong. Wrong. I’m butchering my own name, before anyone else can, by giving it a Western equivalent. There is no equivalent; Nishant and Sean are not the same, the latter is pretending to be someone he’s not. It’s taken me a while to accept, even just realize, that those little compromises at Starbucks are acts of denial on my part. But I’m doing more than just compromising or engaging in denial; I’m sacrificing the generational stories and people that connect to me. In one small act every time, I deny and sacrifice not just myself but everyone who made me. Lots of bad things have been done, or justified, in history books everywhere for the sake of political expedience; our individual histories are no different when we choose ease and comfort over authenticity and commitment.

So I own my name even if it’s difficult for others to spell or pronounce it. I learn their names the first time; and I’ve learned two kinds of English, British and American. So why can’t I ask of them what is also asked of me? My name has value; it has meaning and a nice story that connects to who I am and where I come from, but no one will know it, or respect me or my name, if I don’t do it myself, even at Starbucks. If I say Sean, then Sean I will be, and become, to others. But I’m not and never have been. I’m Nishant. N-I-S-H-A-N-T. Stress on the second syllable, soft “h” sound after the “t.” It means end of night, or dawn. The combination of Nitin and Harsha and the last of their two sons. I was born to them in India and I’m a citizen of the United States. I’ve renounced my Indian citizenship but I don’t renounce my name.

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