After two years of isolation at home, many new employees have never met or greeted each other. Don’t underestimate the importance of greeting, especially when dealing with Indians. Indian names may be written one way, pronounced another way, and greeted in yet another way. Often, you have to go around in circles before realizing that it’s the same person. However, Indians seem to be too lazy to explain all of this, so if you’re confused, it’s your problem.
Indian names are long and changeable, and the truth behind them can often be found through greetings. The titles used in greetings are their most sincere names. If you encounter an Indian colleague with an uncontrollably long surname or name, believe me, there is another shortened version circulating in the black market, and that is the version used in greetings. To talk to them heart-to-heart, you have to use the shortened version.
During the pandemic, I was confused by Indian names that were written one way, pronounced another way, and greeted in yet another way. But it was this confusion that taught me some fresh things that I didn’t know after 30 years in Silicon Valley, and I got to know Indians better.
Indian names can change depending on the occasion, like making up flower colors and making cards in mahjong. General employees in a company have at least four accounts: one is the company’s database, which is the officially registered name that must match the ID card and is the only truth; one is the name displayed on email, usually the official name, but can be changed in special cases, such as having the same name and surname; the third is the name used in Zoom online meetings, which cannot be changed and must follow the truth; the fourth is the name used in Slack, where you can create your own style – of course, normal people still use the official name, and no one wants chaos in this regard.
One day, an Indian colleague I had never met before messaged me on Slack with a name I had never heard of, so he must be new. His name on Slack was normal, just a standard Indian name and surname. To explain it in Chinese, let’s say his name is Wang Danian. After chatting, I asked him to send me the information by email, and later received an email from “Danian Danian” – the surname and name were exactly the same. Knowing that it was from him, I couldn’t be too surprised about these things if I wanted to survive in Silicon Valley. Whether it’s Wang Danian or Danian Danian, it’s the same person. This means that if someone has the same surname and name, it’s not a mistake, it’s just another Indian-style confusion that doesn’t need to be explained.
I used to encounter these things and didn’t bother to find answers. When dealing with Indians, you can’t take things too seriously.
A few days later, in order to track the same issue, I set up a Zoom online meeting and invited him. When the meeting room opened, I saw someone named “Wang Fanu” join – of course, it was still Wang Danian, and he still didn’t explain why his name had changed again, and he wasn’t worried that I would think it was someone else. This time, his surname didn’t change, but his first name did, and it was called Fnu – there was only one pronunciation for it, which was “Fanu” according to the sound. I held back my curiosity during the next few meetings, until I got a little familiar and asked why this strange name Fnu came up again, and it was different from the title on Slack.
He said that Fnu was his name on official documents, but it wasn’t his real name, it was given by the US government.
Uncontrollable Long Names
In southern India, there is no concept of surnames, only one word is used as a name…a very long string of characters. The string is so long because the father’s name is also included to distinguish who is whose descendant. But the father’s name also includes the name of the previous generation, so it ends up being uncontrollably long. To make matters worse, in rural areas, the birthplace also needs to be included, so the name of the village can also be added. Sometimes, to please relatives, they will let family and friends donate their names, turning naming a child into a family puzzle game.
Having such a long string of letters is not a problem in India, but when it comes to the United States, problems arise. All official documents in the United States must have separate fields for first name and last name. If both are not filled in, it cannot be entered at all. So the US government treats that very long string as the last name and forces them to have a first name – called Fnu.
To be honest, this name is not bad. I think this name is cool, easy to pronounce, and has a special meaning. He said Fnu stands for First Name Unknown.
Fortunately, the camera wasn’t on, or he would have seen my jaw drop.
I used to hear that some people would cut their very long last name in half and use it as their first name. When they got tired of it, they could recombine it for endless variations. But I have never heard of anger being a gift from heaven. He may not want to cut his own tradition just to borrow a name, so he accepted “unknown” as his name.
All his official documents are called “unknown”. This also explains why on Zoom meetings, I see “Fnu” – that’s the official stamp he can’t change. As for the name on his email, I believe it was specially approved by the company. This also means that the normal name on Slack is what he really wants to be called. But legally, he can only be Fnu, “unknown”.
So the next time you see the name Fnu, remember, first try to stay calm, secondly, don’t call him “anger” presumptuously, it’s best to ask him what name is more appropriate. If all else fails, call him by his last name…but that may be an even more difficult challenge. If you can pronounce it, it means you have some language talent.
Those Called “FNU”
As the story goes…
Curious, I went back to the company database to look up all the people named “FNU” and found a long list of them. Looking at their photos, I realized that both men and women had been given this name. Apparently, when the U.S. government assigns names, they don’t consider gender. But after all, it’s just a label, and labels don’t have genders, do they? This was a long list, but also a list of silent victims: if you want to work in this country, you have to accept a certain degree of persecution.
Thinking back on my time in the United States, I realized that, except for Christians, I had never seen Indians with Western-style names. For example, you wouldn’t see a name like Justin, which is very American, even among second-generation Indians. They seem to be more strict about tradition than we are.
I wondered why they didn’t just put any name on their application documents to avoid carrying this label for the rest of their lives and being secretly ridiculed by others. That colleague was willing to pay such a high price for such a small matter… and so was every victim on that list. But maybe it’s not a small matter, because they were all willing to be nameless in exchange for preserving their traditions.
America is so cruel, and Indians are so pitiful.
To be honest, after this incident, every time I see those called “FNU,” I am filled with respect. They are Indians who have been stamped with this label by the U.S. government on their foreheads because they refuse to change their traditions. These three letters seem to be telling America that they can stamp them, but they cannot force them to change their traditions. This is actually a traditional defense battle that is silently happening in the dark, and there may be few outsiders in the world who know about it.
What a heavy silent protest to accept the letters “FNU” on their foreheads. That stamp is a humiliation and a punishment from the U.S. government. You could say they lost the battle because the label will always follow them. Even when they get a U.S. passport, “FNU” will be printed on it, regardless of gender, and it cannot be washed away.
But knowing this story, knowing everything behind it… I would say they are all warriors, and they have all won because they have preserved their traditions.
Who dares to say they lost the battle when they exchanged their traditions for a stamp on their foreheads?