This First Person column is the experience of Promod Puri, a writer and retired journalist who established The South Asian Link newspaper in Winnipeg in 1973 and now lives in Vancouver. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see this FAQ.
It was the month of October, with quite a chill in the air, when I landed at the Winnipeg airport in 1972 to seek Canadian immigration. With five dollars when I left India, I had already spent two dollars at the Heathrow stopover in London.
Fortunately, my elder brother, who received me at the Winnipeg airport, was already in Canada, so the immediate monetary support was there until I got my permanent residence status and settled down with a job.
The next step, a little challenging, was to find work — any work, with little or no experience.
Luckily, walking down one of the streets off Portage Avenue one day, I got my first opportunity to work in Canada. It was at the 7-Eleven store.
The job interview was quick, and I was hired right away, without any previous background in selling Slurpees, cigarettes, milk, candies, etc., or even operating a cash register.
It was a learning exposure of interacting with people and an opportunity to modify my thick-accented Indian English, besides picking up a few slang words.
Things went on smoothly at the store — the customers were friendly, and the good-natured manager was helpful.
After a few weeks of working at the convenience store, my manager, in a cordial tone, asked me, “If you don’t mind, can I call you Peter?” as my first name was “a little hard to pronounce.”
My instant response was, “no problem.”
The name change was like a pat on my back from regular customers and the rest of the employees.
Still, I was not quite ready to accept the new moniker on top of my parent-given appellation.
I felt something like losing a fraction of my Indian identity within me. The inner voice also told me, “to gain something, you have to lose something.”
Name change common in South Asian communities
Soon I found out the name change was quite common within the South Asian communities. They often switched their first names: for example, from Mohinder to Mo, Amrit to Amy, Rajinder to Roger, Davinder to Dave, Harjit to Harry, Maninder or Manjit to Mary, Ashok to Ash, and so on.
At the 7-Eleven, my name change got a further adjustment when the manager, followed by other staff, started calling me “Pete.”
But for me, the transformation from Promod to Peter and then Pete was tolerable. Peter/Pete was not a big deal.
It might not be a big deal for me. Still, the adoption of aliases was a favoured topic for argument among most South Asian immigrants at our social get-togethers.
The community was divided between the professionals, like academics, doctors or engineers, with secure jobs, and the rest of the folks in manual, sales, or other employment.
Whereas the professionals stuck to their first names no matter how hard to pronounce, the rest, like me, did not mind being called Peter, Pete, Mike, or Mo.
My experience at the 7-Eleven was quite pleasant and gratifying altogether, meeting customers and enthusiastically handling money — a first in my life.
My uniform over my shirt was the jacket with a printed 7-Eleven logo all over the fabric. Besides keeping me warm, the outfit reminded me of those cotton shawls or a piece of oblong cloth wrapped by holy men in India with the repeated print name of the Hindu god Ram.
I did not work at the convenience store for long. I left my “Peter” and “Pete” tags behind — but not because I did not like the name change. Rather, I took it in its stride.
Ever since the 7-Eleven stint, I have continued with my given name, Promod.
But the memories of gaining my first “Canadian experience” in “friendly Manitoba” are still fresh almost 49 years later — me as Peter or Pete, putting on the omnipresent 7-Eleven logo jacket.