The Third-Culture Kid or International Baby Names

Some people prefer gender neutral names for different reasons. I’m wondering about something similar with ethnic names. It’s not about being ashamed of ethnicity or name. I have no problems with my very South Indian name and didn’t change it to an “American” name. It’s about celebrating the cosmopolitan international mindset that I have as a third culture kid. I’m a human first before my nationality or ethnicity. The next few paragraphs will explain where I’m coming from, how I thought about choosing international names for my kids (as long as my husband and I agree), and some ideas that I came up for international sounding names.


Recently, I came across this NYT article noting that it’s becoming increasingly common for immigrants to the US to keep their ethnic sounding names. I’m glad to be part of this trend. When my family became US citizens, my parents changed their names. I can understand their choices. My father’s full name was Sankaranarayanan Shanmugam. But, he was always known as Shan. I get why he changed his first name to Shan but he also changed his surname or last name to Daniels. He wanted an American name. My mother too changed her last name.

When you are becoming a US citizen, you have the option to keep or change your name. In the old days, the immigration officials at Ellis Island would change the name for you, especially if it wasn’t “American” enough. If there were too many Andersons in the country, it’d be time to pick another name for the newcomers.

Thankfully, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) doesn’t do it anymore. My sister and I decided to keep our birth names. That’s what makes us unique individuals. Maybe since we’re females, it’s easier for us to get around with our ethnicity. Prejudice will always show it’s ugly face, but I heard that it’s worse on guys. I heard plenty of comments like, “that’s a cool name” and questions about what it means. I don’t find the term “exotic” offensive at all in this context. Even in small town Arizona, I haven’t had any issues.

If my name incites discrimination or if an employer doesn’t hire me…well then, fuck them! I don’t want to work for them. As I got older, I developed a “fuck you” attitude. The biggest priority of my existence isn’t to please everyone. I don’t owe anyone anything. There are people out there who can’t stand me, disagree with me, or don’t get me. That’s totally fine with me.

When I come across a foreign or unfamiliar name, I make a strong effort to say it correctly and will not shorten it for my own convenience. I’ve told my students to be proud of who they are and if I mispronounce, it’s nothing personal. They should not to be ashamed of correcting me till I get it right—even if it takes months.

I’m still Indu Shanmugam. In less than 2 months, I’m getting married and I’m choosing my old cultural tradition of married women adding their husband’s names instead of erasing their maiden names. My married name will not be hyphenated. I’ll be Mrs. Indu S. Guzman or Mrs. Guzman. My full new name will be Indu Shanmugam Guzman. My maiden name will become my middle name. I will continue to publish and blog under my maiden name, Indu Shanmugam. It’s my choice to take my husband’s name. I know many married women who kept theirs. Nothing wrong with that. It’s all about individual choices. Some people will judge me because I do not want my father or any male relative giving me away. I’m walking down the aisle myself. It’s a meaningless, outdated patriarchal tradition to me. I’m a person not something to be given away.

As a teenager, I used to be self-conscious about my ethnicity, because it isn’t easy going against the tide and facing discrimination. Discrimination and prejudice still exists even in liberal Portland. Sometimes I feel it’s worse than some of the so-called red states I’ve been in.

Dating and marriage is complicated for immigrants, third-cultured, and internationals. Now in the near future, Luis and I plan to have kids after marriage. Then, naming our children and parenting is the next thing. My fiancé is half Colombian and half Portuguese-Italian-Irish-Sioux who grew up in Cambridge, MA. And, I’m full-blooded Indian who left the homeland as a baby, lived the expat life in Dubai, and then been in America for 20 years. We discovered differences in parenting styles and growing up. Sometimes that leads to disagreements. They are not so different that it’s severing our relationship, but we can learn from each other and take the best of both perspectives. That takes patience, humility, and work. The work that takes for both of us to keep our relationship is well worth it. 

Several years ago, my sister came up with this idea. How about simply naming our kids with names from different countries? We’d have a Hans, Rahul, Brianna, Keiko, Sonia, Hwan, Indira etc… I mean it’d be a way to celebrate being a global citizen and international. I thought Irish and Japanese names were cool while Surya fancied German and Korean names. Of course, the fathers of our kids will also have a say in naming our babies.

Things have changed. Surya decided to not have children.

Now that having kids is in my near future, I have a better idea. How about having international names that people of various ethnicities have? Also, these names can make the child sound like a local in multiple countries. I have yet to ask my husband what he thinks of these names.

Here are some of my ideas of international names that I like:

  • Sonia
  • Rahul (Raoul)
  • Nina
  • Nikki or Nikita
  • Rick
  • Ray
  • Ria
  • Nick (can be short for Nicholas or Nikhil)

I’m glad that my parents named me Indu instead of a much longer and accented Indian name. I have yet to ask my husband what he thinks of the idea.


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