Like Héritier Lumumba, These 7 Culturally Diverse Australians Had To Change Their Names

From mockery to mispronunciation, here's what drove the ex-Collingwood player and others to adopt monikers that are more "anglicised".
Many culturally diverse Australians have felt the need to change their names. Here are some of their stories.
Many culturally diverse Australians have felt the need to change their names. Here are some of their stories.

Héritier Lumumba prompted the investigation into systemic racism at the Collingwood Football Club after saying he endured a “culture of racist jokes” while playing for the Magpies from 2005 to 2014. However, he began facing racism long before his AFL career, when he felt the need to change his name to Harry O’Brien after being “laughed at every day.”

In an interview with the ABC in 2017, Lumumba said his birth name was “difficult” for teachers to pronounce during roll call.

“It was traumatising to be laughed at every day, I guess to feel completely alienated because I didn’t have a name that was anglicised,” he said.

“It was a mixture of me just wanting to fit in and also people having difficulty saying it, so given that my name starts with ‘H’ they thought that it would be appropriate to give me the name ‘Harry’ instead of pronouncing ‘Heritier’.”

Lumumba, whose mother is Brazilian and father hailed from the Democratic Republic of Congo, adopted his stepdad’s surname, O’Brien, when he was nine years old. He was known as ‘Harry O’Brien’ through his schooling years and the early stages of his AFL career.

Former Collingwood player Héritier Lumumba used to be known as Harry O'Brien.
Former Collingwood player Héritier Lumumba used to be known as Harry O'Brien.

“I reluctantly, initially, accepted it, but then I later came to embrace it and in the embracing of the name I think it symbolised an assimilation into a culture that never really was able to accept me,” he said.

In 2013 he started going by his birth name of Héritier Lumumba, a move he felt was “quite empowering.”

“I’ve realised the impact of changing my name at the age of nine years of age had on me,” he said at the time. “Moving forward over the next phase of my life I’d like to take back my original name because I want to be as truthful to myself as I can and also to go back to where it all started for me.”

Like Lumumba, this is the reality for many culturally diverse Australians who have felt the need to change their names.

Here are some of their stories.

Priya Serrao

Former Miss Universe Australia Priya Serrao used her middle name, Olivia, throughout high school and university.
Former Miss Universe Australia Priya Serrao used her middle name, Olivia, throughout high school and university.

Last year’s Miss Universe Australia, Priya Serrao migrated to Australia at age 11 after living in India, Oman and Dubai.

The now 28-year-old said she felt “uncomfortable” when schoolmates mispronounced Priya, leading to her using her middle name, Olivia, throughout high school and university.

“My name is a common one in India, so it was strange and uncomfortable to have many people struggle to pronounce it,” Serrao told HuffPost Australia. “There had been instances where despite my clarification, people would resort to using an anglicised version like Pia or Mia.”

Serrao said as a pre-teen she was “already embarrassed about drawing unwanted attention for looking and sounding different,” and therefore “the last thing I wanted was to create a ‘hassle’ by insisting people pronounce my name correctly.”

“At the time, I even remember being jealous of my sister who has an ethnically ambiguous name. This experience meant that I often used my middle name (Olivia) for the sake of convenience,” she said.

Looking back, the law school graduate said she “felt uncomfortable” but “didn’t think too deeply” about the reason for her discomfort at the time.

“In hindsight, I was prioritising others’ comfort over my identity. I also felt like I was betraying my culture and erasing an important part of myself for social acceptance or convenience,” she said. “It took me quite a long time to become self-aware, analyse and understand my behaviour within the broader context of the migrant experience and learn to become proud of it.”

These days, Serrao couldn’t be prouder after having “grown to love” her name and respecting that her “parents chose it” for her.

“My name is not a negotiable part of who I am anymore. Now, if anyone has any trouble with it, I make sure I take the time to spell it out and pronounce it loudly and clearly.”

As for her advice to other culturally diverse Australians who find themselves in a similar position, Serrao said she would encourage them “to be proud of their names.”

She continued, “Correct people when they pronounce it wrong. You’re not being difficult by refusing to anglicise it. It’s a difficult thing to do so, especially when there is well-established evidence of social and professional biases against names that are ‘too difficult to pronounce’ or ‘foreign.’

“But in my experience, and I assume this is true for many culturally diverse Australians, altering your name chips away at an important part of who you are, dilutes the multicultural richness that is one of Australia’s greatest assets and is just not worth it in the long run.”

Tyler De Nawi

Actor Tyler De Nawi's real name is Mustafa, but he changed it to Tyler to make his mark in Australia's film and TV industry.
Actor Tyler De Nawi's real name is Mustafa, but he changed it to Tyler to make his mark in Australia's film and TV industry.

Tyler De Nawi had used other stage names such as Steve when working at a marketing company and Cabelinho while working as an acrobat at a Brazilian dance company. However, the actor only made headlines in 2016 after being outed as the man, ‘Mustafa,’ that TV presenter Waleed Aly had referred to his in Gold Logies acceptance speech.

“Not so long ago actually … someone who is in this room, and I’m not going to use the name they use in the industry, came up to me, introduced themselves and said to me, ‘I really hope you win. My name is Mustafa. But I can’t use that name because I won’t get a job’,” Aly said at the time.

In a first-person piece published soon after, De Nawi said he had waited “for more than a year” for a job offer after putting himself forward in the acting industry by his real name, Mustafa.

“Then one day I decided to change my name on the site to Tyler De Nawi,” he said. “The photos were the same, the résumé was the same, the lack of experience was the same. The next day, the messages began to come in ― not just replies to my applications but also direct approaches from directors and producers.”

“The message was clear.” De Nawi added. “You read the name Mustafa, you think Muslim (for the record, yes I am) and the walls go up. You read Tyler and the walls come down.”

After changing his name, the actor landed roles in ‘The Principal’ and ‘Here Come The Habibs.’

The name Tyler “became a cloak for me, a cover for my true, secret identity. Being exposed after the Logies made me feel really vulnerable. But I’m starting to see the bigger picture here,” he wrote.

De Nawi said he “felt the pain that comes from feeling ashamed” of who he is because “others tell me that’s how I should feel.”

He acknowledged other young Australians who would relate to his experience, and said he hoped that one day “Mustafa is equal to Tyler in the ears and eyes of the people watching television programs in this country.”

Poh Ling Yeow

'MasterChef Australia' star Poh Ling Yeow was known as Sharon until her mid-20s.
'MasterChef Australia' star Poh Ling Yeow was known as Sharon until her mid-20s.

After moving to Australia from Malaysia at age nine, ‘MasterChef Australia’ star Poh Ling Yeow grew up using the name Sharon.

She had always struggled with her identity, having “dreamt of being blonde and blue eyed” and “fantasised about having long legs and was ashamed of the shape of my nose and my face”.

The artist and cook went by the name Sharon until her mid-20s when her then-husband Matt Phipps encouraged her to ditch her anglicised name for her Chinese one given at birth: Poh Ling Yeow.

“I did such a great job of shedding everything that made me feel different that in my early 30s I had nothing,” she told Business Insider in 2014.

Then one day, she “actually got a little bit scared” and decided to explore her cultural heritage through food which eventually led to her auditioning for ‘MasterChef.’

“I guess I’m really only reconnecting with my culture now, after having spent so many years being disconnected from it,” she told the Sydney Morning Herald in 2015.

These days she’s a household name on Australian TV, and couldn’t be prouder for the nation to know her as Poh.

Pallavi Sharda

Indian Australian actor Pallavi Sharda recalls “being called one thing at school and another thing at home”.
Indian Australian actor Pallavi Sharda recalls “being called one thing at school and another thing at home”.

Changing names runs in the family for Perth-born actor Pallavi Sharda.

“When I was three, my mother came up with the idea of changing my elder brother’s name to something more relatable, as she was fed up with the mispronunciations,” Sharda told HuffPost Australia.

“He had a one-syllable moniker which had resonance in both Indian and Anglo cultures. I asked her if I would have a new name, too. She told me I could choose it. Ironically, I chose another (albeit shorter) Indian name which felt to me like it was ‘easier’ to say than ‘Pallavi’ (pronounced Pah-le-vie).”

Growing up in Melbourne, Sharda was “teased in the playground,” which she described as a classic “rite of passage for us immigrant kids.” But what struck her the most was “being called one thing at school and another thing at home.”

“It created a demarcation between public and private life, which meant that the two became subconsciously irreconcilable,” she said. “As if my birth identity ― the thing which felt like ‘me’ ― was not compatible with the world of relatability and acceptability.”

Once she started high school, Sharda reverted to Pallavi “full time,” which required “being patient with the awkwardness people encountered in trying to pronounce it.”

“It also meant learning to stand up for the way in which I want to be called despite potentially causing some inconvenience to others ― it’s something I still sometimes struggle with,” she said.

“It’s a horrible thing when you have to sacrifice your own name for someone else’s convenience. But I guess that happened to entire peoples, cities and cultures during the height of colonialism. We are in the midst of a post-colonial hangover on a multitude of levels.”

After working abroad for several years, Sharda returned to Australia last year and again faced the “childhood difficulties” she encountered around her name.

“I feel like we are getting better at taking the time to be sensitive to so-called difference, but I still encounter the odd person who might opt to just call me P without first attempting to use a preferred nickname or my actual name.

“It’s reductive and sad and I hope that younger kids with beautiful names of different backgrounds feel confident in their unique glory.”

Pavani Katugampola

Pavani Katugampola said it was “just easier” to go by the shortened version of her name, Pav, so she didn’t have to “correct people on a daily basis”.
Pavani Katugampola said it was “just easier” to go by the shortened version of her name, Pav, so she didn’t have to “correct people on a daily basis”.

As a school teacher, she’s elated to hear her students pronounce her name correctly, but Pavani Katugampola’s experience wasn’t so positive when she attended school.

Like Lumumba, she would feel “a knot” in her stomach during roll call because she would always “notice a strange look from the teacher.”

“One of the most embarrassing moments for me was when I was called up to receive an award at school and the teacher treated my name as a joke,” she said.

“He muttered something in gibberish and smirked at the end. I remember freezing and not really knowing how to react... There were great teachers who would ask me how to correctly pronounce my name before awards ceremonies, but the negative experiences are sometimes the ones that have a lasting effect.”

Katugampola, who was born in Sri Lanka, lived in Abu Dhabi until she was 11 years old and then came to Australia, said it was “just easier” to go by the shortened version of her name, Pav, so she didn’t have to “correct people on a daily basis.”

“At work, colleagues will ask how to pronounce my name correctly and breathe a sigh of relief to themselves when I say, ‘just call me Pav,’” she said.

“It does affect my sense of identity, because like any other name ― my parents selected it for me. My name is a big part of my identity, and it’s my connection to my heritage.

“Growing up in a few different places has given me a warped sense of who I am and where I belong. I don’t feel completely Sri Lankan, but neither do I feel completely Australian. When people make an effort to learn my name, it tells me that they value me or are willing to try at least.”

Kriti Uttam

Kriti Uttam is known to all of her colleagues as Katrina.
Kriti Uttam is known to all of her colleagues as Katrina.

She grew up as Kriti Uttam, but if you met her nowadays, you’d know the Sydney-based lawyer as Katrina.

After moving to Australia from New Zealand nine years ago, Uttam used the name given by her Indian parents when applying for jobs.

“I was applying for a job and every time what would happen is, I’d pick up the phone, I’d say, ‘Hi, it’s Kriti’, and they would say, ‘What Pretty?’ and I’d say, ‘No, Kriti.’

“I thought this is just incredibly frustrating that people are calling me by various names,” said Uttam, explaining that’s when she tried a different name for the “convenience.”

“I put Katrina on my CV when applying for a job, and for whatever reason, I ended up getting that one. I got that job and because I had put Katrina, I couldn’t now say, ‘Actually my name is Kriti.’”

The name Katrina has since stuck to her professional persona for almost a decade, and has helped her forge a sense of belonging in the corporate world.

“If I’m speaking to clients and I say, ‘Hi it’s Katrina,’ I felt like I was more a part of the society that we’re in,” she said.

“It wasn’t like I need to change my name because it’s Indian and I don’t want to seem Indian. Obviously I’m proud of my heritage. It was more like my clients can call me Katrina when I’m networking. It’s easy to say Katrina and people will feel like they can pronounce your name and they’re not as fearful or awkward by it.”

Uttam has become so accustomed to be calling Katrina, that she recalled an incident where she didn’t even turn around at a shopping centre when someone called out Kriti. She said she’s “not sure” whether changing her name “was the right decision or not.”

“Now it’s easy, everyone calls me Katrina and it’s fine. But I feel like that’s not who I am. I grew up as Kriti and I should be so proud of the difference in my name and so proud of the heritage that I come from, and I feel like I’m trying to disguise that by using Katrina.”

Belle Wen Xian Lim

Belle Lim said she can't go by her name Wen Xian Lim because of the racial "stereotype" against Asian international students in Australia.
Belle Lim said she can't go by her name Wen Xian Lim because of the racial "stereotype" against Asian international students in Australia.

Belle Lim shared her experience as an international student who has used a Western name since coming to Australia from Malaysia in 2013.

On her first day at school, she was asked for her “preferred name” and knew she “had to make up something,” so chose Belle on the spot.

“There’s no way I’m going to go by my original name, Wen Xian, because I think there are a lot of stereotypes on Asian women, international students and Chinese students on how we might not speak English properly or might behave in a certain way that people don’t like,” she said.

“I just think that if I go by my original name, people would behave more racist towards me.”

While she still receives strange looks from people as she lines up at a cafe, she’s still glad she can use the name Belle when giving her coffee order.

However, an incident that left her shaken and “traumatised” occurred five years ago when she went to a post office to pick up a parcel she had ordered online.

She had made the order under the name Belle, but her ID documents all say Wen Xian, and therefore the post office staff wouldn’t give her the package.

“It was peak hour and people were lining up behind me. He [the postal staffer] was making a scene and asking, ‘Why do you call yourself Belle?’ It was insulting and very traumatising and I felt like a fraud,” she said.

“I’m putting on this persona and I’m not this person and what the most striking thing was he was an old, Asian man and I was very embarrassed.

“I was not comfortable standing up for myself. I felt like it was my fault. I felt guilty and all of the shame. I didn’t know what to do until he finally gave me my parcel.”

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