Embracing My Hyphen: On Patels, Privilege, and the Names We Hide Behind

By Reema Rao-Patel

Illustration by @embars_store


My father and I used to count “Mango Indians” at the grocery store, like “Punch Buggy!” They wore salwars instead of sweats, shopped for instant upma instead of Eggo, and hoarded mangos when they went on sale. Mango Indians looked different to us, but if you asked any white person, I am sure we all looked the same – brown. These differences used to seem superficial and harmless, but when I got married something deeper was revealed – not the differences themselves, but the quickness with which Indians discriminate against our own.


When I got married, I hyphenated my last name to Rao-Patel, honouring our union but also the nuance in cultural backgrounds.

My mother-in-law was only concerned with what came after the hyphen, “You are a Patel now!”. My parents were relieved that I was not so quick to give up Rao; four years before, when I introduced my husband-then-boyfriend to them, my mother’s first response was, “Couldn’t you find someone from a family like ours?”. To me, -Patel meant a new signature and an addition that would not require spelling to customer service. To my parents and our larger community, Patel was far more than a name.


What’s in a name?


My first name was meticulously chosen for a white audience. When my parents came to the U.S. in the 1980s, they were forced to shorten their three-syllable names to four letters because they could no longer bear the butchering. Reema is short, phonetic, and “such a pretty name,” a compliment reserved for names that are exotic, but not in an overwhelming way. It was only my Aunt, who insisted on spelling my name “Rimah” on every birthday card, that faltered. We forgive family. My last name is shorter and almost as intuitive as my first. I never had to correct someone more than once – Rao, like wow. I went a good 20-some years thinking it was a stroke of good luck, when in fact it was not.


As a child, I was always impressed by how easily my parents could place an Indian they had never met, simply by their last name. “Definitely a Tulu speaker”, or “He grew up in Bombay but must originally be from Mangalore”, or even “Does their family own a sari shop?” This is one of the effects of the caste system, like consulting the Whitepages but one that never gets updated past the first edition. If you want to make a new name for yourself, it is easier just to change your name. And so, my great-great-grandfather did.


Upon uprooting his life from the western coast of India to the south, he shed the name Shenoy for Rao. Shenoys were pegged outsiders, whereas Rao was one of few names as untraceable and unbounded as Smith.

It afforded my great-great-grandfather land to put down new roots. It was printed on the law degree that hung in my great-grandfather’s office. It helped my grandfather establish himself at the bank so that my father could one day open a coveted piece of mail: Chandrakanth Rao, congratulations on your acceptance to Oregon State University. But with new beginnings, our history was erased.


I assumed the baggage of Indian culture would remain ten thousand miles away, where our parents left it. I was wrong. A few months before my wedding, a friend’s Indian father asked if I was planning on changing my last name. When I told him I was hyphenating, he said plainly “Good idea. Patels are seen differently, you know. You don’t want people to think you were born a Patel.” I wanted to slap him with some words but was left stuttering.


I grew up in a town where it was nothing unusual for yearbooks to have consecutive pages dedicated to Patels.

When the U.S. government lifted its immigration ban in the 1960s, Patels were some of the first immigrants carrying nothing but a handful of cash and their dreams halfway across the world. Patel indicates both farmer and businessman, hardworking professions yet undoubtedly middle caste. America was an elusive promise that hard work could take you higher than just the middle.


Today, the name Patel has emblazoned across America – from the ubiquity of Dr. Patels, to national grocery chain Patel Brothers claiming Costco size lots, and of course, Hollywood token Dev Patel. At the same time, a notable number of Patels built a life from what they knew. My husband hails from a family of small business entrepreneurs. In a small town in Gujarat, his grandfather made a successful living as a tobacco farmer and general store owner. His three sons carried on his legacy in America – working their way up from newspaper stands to independently owned gas stations and liquor stores, that paid for college tuitions. However, for every Dr. Patel that is revered by Indian immigrants – “look how respected we are” – there is a Patel checking in guests at a motel or cashing out a customer that is marginalized – we’re not all like that.


“Patels are seen differently, you know.” Those words weighed heavily in my mind in the days leading up to my wedding and even after. I found myself pitying my husband. What does it feel like to constantly have your identity threatened on two fronts – to have to defend your worth to your brown brothers and sisters just to prove your value to white Americans? However, I failed to recognize how I was keeping my husband’s family at arm’s length with that very thought.


Self-awareness, when it happens, is painful. I had an Indian boss who was excited to find out that my husband was from the Cleveland-area like she was. “Who is his family? I’m sure my parents know them. They are very embedded in the Indian community there.” Based on their last name, I quickly assumed they could not know these Patels. In fact, I decided no one needed to know them. I was too embarrassed to say, “They own a liquor store in Akron.” I was still shaping my life to fit an accepted narrative that my name had destined me to do. In that moment guilt pooled deep in my stomach and rippled with regret. I had taken my husband’s name but taken no responsibility for it.


A Bridged Identity


What does it feel like to constantly have your identity threatened on two fronts? The truth was, I had wrongly assumed that this even plagued my husband and his family. I projected guilt and shame onto them only to have it reflect back at me. Until our generation, no one in his family had married outside of Patel – not out of convenience or comfort, but out of preference and pride. “We want to know that we are joining with a family like ours,” my mother-in-law explained. Yet how trusting she was to have welcomed a Rao. “A family like ours” rang in my ears in a new tone.


The incident with my boss illuminated just how much I had implicitly absorbed during my own upbringing. Worse yet, I would be ingraining this divisiveness in the next generation of Patels if I continued to shun the name. How would I be any different than the Uncle who relegated anyone born a Patel? In a grave irony, I would be the same as my great-great-grandfather – abandoning a name, but in this case, one that I had consciously chosen.


I am reminded of a repeated conversation between my mother and I: “I know it can be hard to find someone from exactly the same background as us. But at least marry a similar kind of Indian boy,” she would say. I replied: “Mom, I don’t feel any differences. In America, we are all just Indians trying to make it together.”


Reema Rao-Patel is just that, with a hyphen not to break apart but to bridge two Indians just trying to make it together.

In accepting Patel as my equal and as my own, I am honouring struggle as perseverance, appreciating sacrifice as perspective, and rewriting success as respect, not status. I am done rejecting my hyphen.

About the author Reema Rao-Patel (she/her) is a brand strategist by profession and a creative writer by passion. She has always had a love for language, which has been her outlet to process the world. She writes about matters both central and contextual to her South Asian American background. To read more of her writing, follow her Instagram @reemaraopatel.

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