Culture retention

When Sivasithamparapillai arrived in Australia, he decided that Pillai would be a suitable surname for a country which needed 2 names – first name and surname. Since his people had no trouble mouthing his single name, he was not prepared for what happened next. When asked how he was to be addressed (a courtesy now quite common), he was in a quandary. He would not nominate Siva, as that is the name of a Hindu Deity. The rest of his name, he realised, could cause some difficulty. He suggested that he be addressed as Pillai.

Soon, to his consternation, his name appeared on some financial (and other) documents as Pillai Pillai. While he had not lost his heritage, he now has more than one identity. For comparison, I seem to have 3 identities at my former university. One has my father’s name before my former single name (a historical practice). Another has my name followed by my father’s name because I was identified as ‘son of’ (a former legal practice). My passport name reflected the Western tradition by having my name split.

My extended family have also broken with tradition. While I chose to use the second half of my name as a surname, the single names of my peer group have now become surnames, but without being shortened. Seemingly, Western tongues are now quite capable of pronouncing long ‘Indian’ names (but not always correctly). In contrast, about 20 years ago, that great Indian epic, Mahabharatha, was offered by Australia’s national media as Mahabrata. I interpreted that to refer to the Great Loaf (which could have referred to the then Aussie approach to work as well).

But, one has to pity those Chinese with 3-part traditional names. Where the clan name once preceded the other 2 names, now the latter names have become a hyphenated first name, with the clan name following as surname. But not always. Confusing to the Westerner, some retain the clan name in its traditional place; the hyphenated name takes the place of the surname. Some of my friends solved any possible confusion by adopting a Christian name and retaining their clan name.

This highlights an unavoidable development which arises when one merges with other people through migration; some changes to one’s cultural practices will occur (thereby confusing long-gone ancestors?).