In my relatively short lifetime of 23 years, reactions to my name, both my own and those of others, have taken quite a journey. In the beginning, it was one that promised little more than mispronunciation. For the first year of my life, even my own grandpa called me “Shanty.” Before I traveled to the Netherlands, Japan, France, India, and many other places, I spent my childhood in a Midwestern town of 8,000, nestled between cornfields and tucked into the toe of Indiana’s boot.
I read an article recently about the power of our names, which said that name sounds, popularity and meaning can influence the paths we take in life. Shanti is a name that has attached me to a culture (it’s a vernacular and prayer word that means “peace” in Sanskrit and Hindi) with which, partly because of the name itself, I feel a comfortable connection despite my own very different ethnic heritage of Irish, English and French bloodlines.
My unusual name hasn’t just set me apart, though. It has also paved a path for me all over this world, somehow granting me a cultural neutrality that helps me make friends with people from not just India, but also Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the Ukraine and Bosnia. Shanti is chorused in prayer, it’s echoed in yoga classes on every continent and is nestled in the middle of the title of a recent Bollywood hit, Om Shanti Om. And despite its new fame as a character in Jungle Book 2 (shown), it’s still definitely not a top 1,000 name in this country. Having an ethnic name does connect me with that ethnicity that is not mine, and this kind of connection has given me the curiosity to participate in and appreciate people from every corner of the world.
This name has never been an understated part of my life, since it’s as much a part of my story as it is that of my parents, who traveled to India when they were first married. They brought home meditation, woven scarves and bright photographs, and my name is hardly a subtle reference to that aspect of their story.
The first half of my childhood world, the small midwestern town half, misunderstood my name in both spelling and pronunciation. The rhythm of roll calls stumbled as teachers tried to decide whether to call out “Shanty” or “Chanté.” Many a hometown friend has dropped the “t” in the middle and settled on “Shawnee.” However it’s been said, it’s had just as many spellings. S-H-A-U-N-T-I. S-H-A-W-N-T-I. In the third grade, a classmate gave me fold-up Valentine’s Day card addressed to S-H-O-N-T-Y.
The other half of my childhood world was the Indian half. Some of our family’s closest, most longstanding friendships are with Indian people here in the U.S. to whom my name is familiar. At an Indian wedding when I was 17, I commented to some girls my age, about my name’s being uncommon. One of them said, “What? Oh, yeah, for white girls.”
When I meet Indian people I haven’t known all my life, they almost always ask me immediately, “Do you know what your name means?” Sometimes I forget that they can’t tell by looking at me that I grew up in a home which in many ways is probably very similar to those of children raised in America by Indian parents. This is a home that smells like sandalwood because we burn incense, not candles, where meditation and yoga are regular practices, where paintings of Krishna and figurines of Ganesha are scattered throughout, where my mom cooks curry and brown rice the way some Midwestern moms cook macaroni and cheese, where “chai” isn’t followed with “latte,” where the sitar is the soundtrack, and where I had stick-on bindis in my first makeup bag.
There are times when my name has been annoying, when I am so ready to cringe at hearing “Shanty” or “Chanté” again, when, even to me, it has sounded too ethnic. I like that it’s different, and I like the meaning, but it just sounds so Indian, and sometimes I feel so aware that I’m not Indian, and I crave a name that matches the way I look.
Moving first to a charter high school, then Bloomington, Indiana for college, and then even more when I moved to New York City, all this changed. People in more urban and diverse areas are generally much more familiar with this word, and so there’s less mispronunciation and misspelling. Instead, in these recent years, I’ve experienced many more people who hear my name as refreshing and interesting. This kind of approval has, in a large way, helped me reconsider my name and find a new appreciation for it.
My Los Angeles-based aunt, Michele, named her son Sinjin seven years ago. When Sinjin was about two, Michele asked me whether I liked having a different name— and wondered if she should have asked me that before she named Sinjin. My review was mixed. I was just starting college, when my new appreciation for my name had begun. Now, though, I think I can safely conclude that an unusual name is a good thing, especially as an adult. And I think I can also conclude that Sinjin’s experience growing up with his name will be different from mine. His friends include Estrella, Jade, Paloma and José. And he even has a friend named Shanti–though that Shanti is a boy.
An unusual name is a gift for which I’m grateful and one I do want to grant my own children. I wish Sinjin, Jade, Paloma and boy-Shanti all the shades of adventure that come with having those names. I want them to know that while they may find themselves frustrated with their names at times, in my experience, an unusual name has more good experience to offer than bad.
Shanti Knight is a freelance writer and photographer based in New York City. She publishes a personal lifestyle blog, Starshine (http://shantiknight.blogspot.com) and is one of the founding members and contributors to an online literary magazine, the Stringer (www.thestringermag.com).
Do you have an unusual name? Has your experience been more positive or negative? Would you give your child one?