Say my name

Issue: BCMJ, vol. 63, No. 6, July August 2021, Page 233 Editorials

I was given the name Sukhjiwan; it is pronounced “Sook-Jee-Vun.” It is a Sikh name that, in Punjabi, translates to “happy life.” So, why do I go by the name Jeevyn?

When I entered elementary school, no one (not even my teachers) could pronounce my name. As a young student, I always felt anxious when a teacher read through a roll call. I became more anxious as the teacher worked down the list. It was always the same. The awkward silence before the teacher attempted to say my name, followed by the teacher’s epic failure to pronounce it, accompanied by giggles and guffaws from my peers. Sometimes, rather than obliterating my name, teachers would skip over me altogether. One classmate gave me the name Sooj or Soojiwan. This name stuck with me until grade 12. Rarely would someone take the time to ask me how my name was actually pronounced. I felt embarrassed and ashamed of my name. I blamed myself for having such a difficult name. Because of this, I felt less important than my peers.

I do realize that Sukhjiwan is not the easiest of names to pronounce. For those not familiar with the Punjabi language, I think it can be intimidating to look at. So, when I started college, I took matters into my own hands. I decided to call myself Jeevyn. This was not to far off from what I was called at home (Jiwan), so I did not perceive it as being a stretch. Jeevyn was a shorter and easier-to-pronounce version of my name. In Punjabi, Jeevyn means “life.”

My father’s name is Avtar, which means “incarnation of God” in Punjabi. Shortly after immigrating to Canada in 1969, my father started working. It was decided by his peers that he would be called Andy. Avtar was deemed too difficult to say or not reminiscent of a Canadian name. Andy is not a bad name, but it wasn’t his name. When I asked my dad about this experience, he said that he didn’t have a choice in the matter. He was renamed without his approval.

Many people have names that could be considered difficult to pronounce. Surely my story is not unique. So, why do I mention it? Because despite us living in a multicultural world, there are many people of different races and ethnicities who shorten or change their name to fit in. However, by transforming their name, these people essentially lose their identity.

I recently listened to my sister talk about the need to craft a safe BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) group in health. As she talked about racialization and microaggression, I realized that the mispronunciation of my name, or lack of effort to even try, was, in fact, a microaggression. By definition, a microaggression is a “verbal, behavioral, and/or environmental insult minority group members experience from the dominant culture.” Microaggressions occur on a daily basis. These insults and slights may be intentional or not on the part of the dominant-culture member. Because the minority member does not know the motive behind the act, they may feel hurt, angry, or confused.[1]

Although racism has always existed in Canada, recent events have shown us how racial discrimination continues to oppress many members of our society. On 10 May 2021, the Day of Action Against Anti-Asian Racism was recognized. Despite this celebration, the intrusion of COVID-19 has been met with a 700% increase in anti-Asian sentiments in cities such as Burnaby. Furthermore, the continued aggression and violence toward Black people in the United States and Canada has necessitated the need for movements such as Black Lives Matter. Finally, the In Plain Sight report released in BC highlighted the continued racism Indigenous people face by the health care system.

Although most people would say that they are not racist, it is important to recognize the racism and colonialism that are engrained in our societal structures, cultures, and policies. As people may engage in microaggressions without recognizing it, we are all obligated to recognize the role we may play in perpetuating racism. For a start, we should recognize that the ignorant mispronunciation of someone’s name is, in itself, a form of microaggression. A person’s name can have strong affiliation with a person’s culture, language, and sense of belonging. By failing to take the time to learn how someone’s name is pronounced, we show disrespect to the person. This not only results in othering the person, it can also lower that person’s self-worth.

What do I hope to leave imprinted in the mind of the reader? It is my sincere hope that we, as physicians, take the time to understand each patient’s culture, worldview, values, and identity. This can start by learning a patient’s name, asking about a patient’s name, and learning how to pronounce a patient’s name properly.
—Jeevyn K. Chahal, MD


I’d like to thank Raj Chahal, MSW, RT, for contributing to this editorial.


Hays P. Addressing cultural complexities in practice: Assessment, diagnosis, and therapy. 3rd ed. American Psychological Association; 2016.

Jeevyn K. Chahal, MD. Say my name. BCMJ, Vol. 63, No. 6, July, August, 2021, Page(s) 233 - Editorials.

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Robert Holmes says: reply

I have been reading the BCMJ for more than 55 years and have always considered it to be a medical and scientific journal. Generally, I have much enjoyed Dr. Chahal’s contributions in the past and gave her a laudatory reply in November 2018 when she wrote about the value of house calls.
I take issue with her this month, however, when she regards mispronunciation of her name as an aggression and an insult.
My name, Holmes, is Norse in origin and was taken to Britain during the Viking Invasions between the 8th and 11th centuries. It means a small hill or a small island, even in modern Russia, where the Vikings also ventured.
Mexicans have great difficulty with saying it. I am usually called Señor “Olmez” or Señor “Omlez”, which I find amusing and a cause for laughter all round. I am never insulted.
Sixty years ago I was working in Eastern Uganda, one of three doctors tending to half a million Iteso people. One of my friends was Obogonyinge, a police officer. I asked him the meaning of his name (all names have a meaning in Africa), and he replied “It means ‘We will not give him a name, for our six previous children have all died’”.
I would suggest that Dr. Chahal not worry so much about how people pronounce her name. There are far worse things going on.

Caitlin Dunne says: reply

In response to Mr. Holmes' comments, I would support Dr. Chahal's editorial, in which she bravely shared a personal story about the importance of her name. Names represent culture, history, individualism and family - all at the same time. Names represent respect. If we all took a little bit more time to understand each other, perhaps there would be less conflict and more teamwork in the world. Doing one's best to understand a name seems like a pretty good place to start.

Robert Holmes says: reply

I agree with Dr. Dunne’s reply.
I think I had covered all of her precepts with my account of Obongonyinge, and how his name was an indication of the massive infant mortality rate in Africa.
Most of my medical and surgical career, after leaving London, England, in 1960, has been working and living among Indigenous peoples, - Bugisu, Teso, Tsimshian, Syilx and Nlaka’pamux.
You will not be able to pronounce Nlaka’pamux until you have heard that word a dozen times from a native speaker.
For the past 46 years my wife and I have lived alongside the Shulus Reserve of the Lower Nicola Indian Band and could not have wished for better neighbours.
How many BC doctors have ever been on an Indian Reserve, let alone made a house call on a Reserve?
This unceded Territory of the Syilx and Nlaka’pamux (also known as the Nicola Valley) has one of the largest populations of Indigenous people in BC, which makes medical practice very fulfilling. So why do we have such a problem obtaining physicians, particularly from UBC?
Worse, why has there not been a resident woman physician here for more than 15 years?

As for my friend Obongyinge, he was murdered by Idi Amin in 1977.

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