I’ve stopped correcting people when they say my name wrong. Although, in all honesty, I’m not sure I ever really corrected them to begin with.
My ammi’s melodic pronunciation of “RAY-shin-ee,” the focus on the sunshine-laden first syllable, the way her voice would trail off at the end or sometimes even drop the last few letters altogether now just feel like relics of my childhood; of my summers spent in the muddy backyard of our family home in Colombo, Sri Lanka; and of the vibrant, native culture it all imbued.
Once I began primary school in my quaint, suburban enclave of Richmond, Virginia, it began to feel as if the sentiments she captured — the identity she bestowed — simply in how she uttered “Reshini” were not as fastened to my being as the name itself was. At school, I was, and sometimes still am, “re-SHEE-nee.” After countless failed attempts to subtly, yet sternly say my name properly, I eventually acquiesced.
At first, I grew into the Sri Lankan, Buddhist daughter my parents named me to be when immersed in the traditions of my heritage at home. But soon after beginning school, I also became the girl my teachers, my classmates, and even my dearest friends designated me as when they distorted my name at school. It seemed easier that way — to assimilate, to fit in, to choose to focus on the similarities between myself and my peers, rather than to consistently spotlight the differences.
The development of these two narratives did inherently provide me with optionality. This manifested in how I came to truly enjoy the unbridled exploration of my identity, of my interests that were starkly different from those I engaged in at home. By not pigeonholing myself into the specific identity I was born with, I developed an opportunity to craft my own — one that incorporated the inherent multidimensionality of being the daughter of South Asian immigrants in a predominantly white community in 21st century America.
It’s hard to recount if that ability to code switch between these two existences was more self-directed or societally-imposed, but I hypothesize it was some warped combination of the two. In our house, I love eating with my hands, digging into spicy, rich Sri Lankan curries, and hearing Sinhalese music unrelentingly play in the background. Yet, outside those four walls, I excel at figure skating — a sport I am very sure is not popular on the tropical island my parents hail from — and always playing and singing along, albeit off pitch, to the American pop music on the radio instead of the Sinhalese classics that my dad reveres.
For the first eighteen years of my life, I became quite proficient at compartmentalizing my identities: participating enthusiastically in our Buddhist Danas (almsgiving ceremonies), serving the aunties and uncles cashews and whiskey (most often, respectively) at dinner parties, and helping my mother prepare traditional Sri Lankan dishes like kiribath and appa –– while also managing to “not smell Indian” at school and attaching myself to activities like figure skating and peer advising and politics where I was almost exclusively the only person with my skin color in the room or on the ice.
Thus, donning my backpack each morning — or lacing up my skates — also came to symbolize the shedding of something in return. If it couldn’t be the quirky, Sri Lankan-adjacent name my parents gifted me, it would have to, at the very least, be the identity it bore — the one my classmates couldn’t access, the one my teachers couldn’t recognize, the one my skating coaches tried to ignore. What began as a daily exercise in code switching eventually turned into an incredible ability to completely sever the distinct realities, to forge seemingly unique identities that exist on either side of the hyphen when growing up as a Sri Lankan-American.
Yet, this technique that I mastered over the first few chapters of my life became strikingly less effective at college than it was in my hometown. Living on campus instead of at home forced my two realities to conjoin into one. At first, I was relieved. I had found a physical and social space within Harvard and the South Asian community — or so I thought — that allowed my amalgamated, first generation-American identity to thrive. For the first time, I had friends whose melanin matched mine, whose upbringings sounded more relatable, whose experiences in this regard paralleled my own.
My initial experiences within this cultural community seemed to reaffirm my childhood conclusions — that the mispronunciation of my name demonstrated the necessity for distinct realities. It was because my teachers and classmates and friends didn’t look like me, their names didn’t sound like mine, their skin didn’t change under the sunlight in the same way mine did that I developed simultaneous existences. If, and indeed when, I found a group of people who shared those external characteristics I had predicated my delineation on, then code switching wouldn’t be necessary, I figured. And that’s a good thing, right?
It wasn’t for me. That’s because I hadn’t actually developed two, distinct identities — one Sri Lankan and one “American” — while growing up. My identity is the distinction, the separation, the multidimensionality. The hyphen in my Sri Lankan-American upbringing does not serve as the tenuous connection between two disparate existences, but rather it is the fulcrum, the crux, the very essence of the individuality I have nurtured all my life.
When I came to Harvard, the ability to code switch and the choice I made to do so growing up no longer felt like as much of an option. What I had hoped would be a freeing sense of association with my first South Asian community all of a sudden felt like a forced, restrictive classification. The obvious color of my skin immediately relegated me to being a part of a certain cultural group. The desire to be inclusive by representing all South Asians ultimately was a double-edged sword that forced that representation to be the primary — and at times, sole — label for people like myself, even though I had grown up not necessarily identifying that way.
Now, I am surrounded by people who say my name correctly and I find myself clinging to those who don’t. At one point, my mother’s pronunciation of my name felt like a relic, but today, “re-SHEE-nee” does. Either of my own doing or because of how I was socialized, I became attached to these coinciding facets of my existence — the Sri Lankan, Buddhist daughter and the figure skater in a predominantly white community. Others may pass judgment on code switching or insist on my embracing the former identity in certain, more public ways, but I know that my identity can be so much more than having to choose just one.
I can and do choose both.
Reshini Premaratne is a member of the Class of 2021 at Harvard College.