“अरोनि” is what I wrote as my name on the top of my third grade Hindi test paper. It was a bold choice. You see, a few months before this test, my Hindi teacher taught everyone in the class how to write our names in the Hindi alphabet. My name, Aroni, is not a Hindi word. It is Sanskrit, an ancient Indo-Aryan language that is the basis of Hindi, and my mother tongue, Bengali. Even though I could have been taught to write my name in a phonetically-correct manner using Hindi characters, my teacher refused. She said my name can only be written as “अरूनी,” pronounced Ar-oo-nee. I told her that this wasn’t my name, but she refused to let me write it any other way. Now, imagine a third grader being told her name isn’t her name.
I went home and asked my parents why they gave me a name that wasn’t a name. Why did they give me a name so complicated that it couldn’t be written in Hindi? My parents, a pair of proud Bengalis, looked at me, speechless. After all the weeks they spent agonizing about what to name me, flipping through books of history, mythology, and philosophy to find the perfect match, I come home saying my teacher won’t let me write my name. They wiped my teary face and told me to write my name however I wanted to write it—to not let some teacher diminish the significance of what they gifted me. And so, I did. But I lost two points on the test paper for ‘incorrect spelling.’
This is one of many memories that contribute to my complicated sense of identity. But before we get into that, let me introduce myself a bit better.
I was born in Kolkata, India, the heart of West Bengal. Formerly called Calcutta, the city was a trading post that served as the capital city for the British colonial monopoly, East India Company. Bengal’s architecture, culture, and art became central to the creative spirit of the nation. If you ask anyone from India what Kolkata or Bengalis are known for, they’ll probably give you one of three answers: arts and literature, Rosogolla (a spongy white dessert), or fish. A few knowledgeable ones might say the glorious five-day Durga Puja festival.
My parents are both Bengalis, but they are also from Assam, a state in the Northeast of India known for its one-of-a-kind wildlife, historical archaeological locations, and most famously, its tea. My mother studied Economics and my father Mechanical Engineering. My father works in the shipping industry, which means that my family has sailed across the globe. In fact, I sailed with my parents for about a year before my sister was born. We hit ports around the world, visiting Egypt, Sri Lanka, Costa Rica, Malaysia, the U.S., Trinidad and Tobago, and many more. But my parents made it a point that no matter where we were, both my sister and I would be born in Kolkata, surrounded by uncles and aunties, winter mist mixed with pollution, and of course, the never-ending honking cars to accompany our wails.
Eventually, we permanently moved to Singapore and became citizens. I began pre-school in Kolkata, and I dreaded going to school every day for the most trivial of reasons—like not wanting to wake up early or wear an itchy uniform. Eventually, we moved to Kuala Lampur (KL), Malaysia, a temporary stop on our way to citizenship in Singapore. I finished my year of pre-school there, but most of my memories involve feeling out of place. I saw that everyone in the school looked and spoke differently, and I realized those trivial reasons weren’t that important.
One school day in KL, I got lost and found myself in an empty, dark classroom. When the teacher came to get me, I screamed at the top of my lungs out of fear because I was so out of place—mentally and physically. As she opened the door, the light behind the teacher turned her entrance into that of a classic Disney villain. I look at the class picture today and see myself confused and disconnected from everyone.
After that experience, my parents realised that the transition into a new country, its social systems, and culture should be a little slower. They wanted to make sure that I interacted with Singaporeans while also staying connected to my Indian roots. And so, they did what most Indian expats did: they enrolled me in an Indian international school in Singapore.
The school environment was not the best. Unlike most of the students at this school, I hadn’t spent a significant chunk of my life in India. I hadn’t really build the colloquialisms and mannerisms that most of them possessed. In our blue and grey school uniforms, everyone spoke English, but everyone also had to know Hindi, because it was the only way we could bond over Bollywood movies and music. We marched up and down the concrete steps in single file with our hands behind our backs as we hummed the latest Vishal-Shekhar hit.
My parents always spoke to my sister and me in Bengali at home. We watched Hindi movies together before dinner. We read English books before bed. When I spoke to my friends, I jumbled Bengali and Hindi words together, believing that everyone knew Bengali as well as I did. Instead of saying gravy, I would say the Bengali word “jhol.” Or, instead of the Hindi “kichdi,” I would say “kichuri” to refer to a classic comfort food. The difference is ever so slight, but it was always made into a huge deal by my friends.
My confusion deepened when I realized that Hindi and Bengali had the same translations for certain English words, like “chaabi” for “key.” I couldn’t differentiate as quickly or as easily which were only Bengali words that no one else knew, and which were Hindi words that everyone knew. Although I was an Indian among Indians, I always felt otherized.
Even when my family returned to India to visit our relatives, my sister and I would be out in the market with my cousins wearing the same type of t-shirts or kurtas, yet, without even uttering a word, the shopkeepers knew we were outsiders. When our entire extended family gathered for dinner, whenever we said “joodi,” they would laugh because we were supposed pronounce it as “jodi.” Because of the heat, I used to tie my long, thick hair in a bun, but they would smile at me because that is a hairstyle grandmothers wear—not young girls. I understand why those shopkeepers marked us as outsiders. An insider wouldn’t look around at every stall and item, or use solely their fingertips while eating with our hands rather than their whole hands, or call the shopkeeper “uncle” instead of “brother.”
My parents are very progressive, considering the conservative environment in India where they grew up. Their thoughts on how we should be raised, the values we should embody, and the culture and environment we grew up in were not aligned with many other Indian expats we knew. My parents never imposed views of what an Indian “sanskari” girl should be like, never made us feel ashamed of pursue our interests, and always encouraged us to be independent in our decision-making.
A lot of my Indian expat friends had parents that were afraid their children would forget their Indian roots. My parents, on the other hand, wanted us to actively engage with local Singaporean culture, enrolling us in community events, projects, and classes. My mother is still a Grassroots Leader in Singapore, and is heavily involved with local events and community gatherings. So not only did my parents encourage us to be active with the community, but they also led by example. My perception of what it meant to live in Singapore was very different than my other expat friends who stayed isolated within their cultural and ethnic groups.
Singapore embodies a mix of traditional conservative East-Asian and Western liberal practices and beliefs. If you walk down any street and sit at a corner to observe, you can immediately see the interaction between these cultural systems. Language, clothing, conversations, food, architecture, and technology are just a few markers of cultural identity within communities. The flip flops or open-toed shoes on everyone’s feet, the “lahs” and “alamaks” in passing conversations, the squeaky-clean roads and pavement, the rough sand on the beaches, and the tissues falling apart from the sweat I wiped off my face are just a few elements that make up my Singaporean experience.
Knowing what the Indian education system was like (both within India and in Indian schools outside of India), and the style used to teach children, my parents didn’t want my sister and me to continue in that direction. So, they transferred us to a global international school that had campuses across the world. We went to the Singapore campus, of course. All of a sudden, instead of my friends being just Indians or Singaporeans, my friends were from Thailand, Australia, Sri Lanka, Denmark, England, Myanmar, Philippines, China, Japan, and everywhere else.
I felt comfortable in this school rather than alienated, no longer like the odd one out. All the typical high school experiences happened here, the same tropes of exploring myself and exhausting my immaturities continued. My social life was average—not the best, not the worst. But I felt more comfortable because of one fundamental difference: I was taught to appreciate my individuality rather than to be ashamed of it.
Subtle differences in cultural experiences drove every conversation between my peers and me. Our individual linguistic, cultural, societal, and familial diversities made for unique perspectives in the way we critiqued and learned our academic material. When we enacted Shakespeare, I was able to compare it to Rabindranath Tagore or Satyajit Ray. When we talked about British culture in a Jane Austen novel, we were also able to consider its legacy in India and Singapore, both postcolonial nations. When we read James Baldwin, we were able to discuss our own experiences with racism and feelings of otherness.
In this school, I ran a student club that produced an Indian dance showcase to raise funds for a non-governmental organisation in Kolkata called Voice of World. I was encouraged, through this experience, to share my Bengali heritage with Indians and non-Indians alike. Every lunch leading up to the show, we would blast Bollywood music in the plaza, incorporating mainstream Indian culture as well. It warmed my heart to see everyone sing along to Hindi and Bengali songs, rather than just English songs. We learnt to share our individual cultural backgrounds instead of locking out our different values and mindsets for the sake of cohesion.
After immense reflection, I began to better understand how I, over the years, started to embody elements of Bengali culture, mainstream Indian culture, Singaporean culture, and Western liberal culture. The instinctual pull toward the arts and humanities common among Bengalis, the whole-hearted dedication to watching Bollywood movies and listening to its music, calling taxi drivers and shopkeepers uncles and aunties, and speaking English as my first language have influenced my perspective and geared how I interact with the world around me. The lens through which I view my loved ones, my surroundings, my work, and my passions is fuelled by 22 years of accumulating bits and pieces of different languages, cultures, and values.
Today, I go beyond writing “अरोनि” or “अरूनी.” I wear a necklace that my parents made soon after I was born with my name engraved in the Bengali script, “অরনি.” Pronounced Au-ro-ni, this name is unfamiliar to me because no one ever called me that, nor did I feel comfortable encouraging this pronunciation because I thought it wasn’t a name. However, I like to think about the metamorphosis my name has gone through every time I introduce myself to people. The significance of my name for me has gone beyond its pronunciation or spelling; it has become a vessel for the four cultural systems that have created a home within me. Now, I would like to re-introduce myself to you without fear of judgement or losing two exam points.
Hi, my name is Aroni.
Opinion Editor (Volume 48) | email@example.com —
Aroni is a fourth-year student completing a double major in Political Science and English. She previously served as the Associate Comment Editor for Volume 47. Aroni is keen on enabling a safe and trusted space within the student body for students to critically think about issues that matter to them—both on a personal to global scale. Outside of studying, writing, and editing, she loves to dance to classic Bollywood tunes, cycle while listening to music or a podcast, write in her blog, and watch endless K-dramas on Netflix and Viu. You can connect with her on Instagram, LinkedIn, or her blog.