What’s in a name?
I’ve heard it all, in all forms and rearrangement. Patterns so distant from my actual name that I’ve learnt to sweep things under the rug.
“Sorry, Daniel Yazdani. Award for Excellence in-”
I am resolved to my fate. I’ve heard it all, in all forms and rearrangements. Patterns so distant from my actual name that I’ve learnt to sweep them under the rug. And maybe that’s the greatest dilemma of all. To either correct them over and over again or save the battle for another time. But it isn’t something worth thinking about when your Mum is sitting in the crowd of the Year 8 Presentation Day, proud of her boy for winning an award she can post on Facebook. I love you, Mum.
The woman who raised me, who gave me my Iranian name and who passed down such a key part of my identity is sitting in the crowd, tears in her eyes. I can’t possibly do anything now.
Our names are perhaps the most trenchant signifiers of who we are and what we’re made of. Every Justin is a [blank] and every Mary must’ve been born around [blank]. We associate characteristics, time periods and even pop culture references with certain names. But what about Omar and Ji Youn? Leila and Nairobi? Mahnaz and Zhen?
These are the names you never see on mugs or wallets or Christmas baubles. These are the names that are framed to be impossible for the average English tongue to pronounce, or rather, attempt to pronounce. Even those with slight variations, like mine, mean a world of difference to those they belong to. We submit for their benefit. Why? This rumination isn’t something whimsical, nor is it something recent. For generations Australia has turned it’s head to foreign names and we have learnt to embrace their rejection as acceptance. The Anglo-convention has meddled where it has no place, and for that our ethnic names have been made dirty and unusual.
Often, the altering of a name works to the benefit of the namesake. It helps them to blend and convenience a greater group. My father, Bijan, with an emphasis on the ‘J’, often introduces himself as ‘John’. Not too loud, but not silent either, he adapted the ‘jan’ in his name and twisted it into something that is easier for others to pronounce. He rearranges himself for lazy tongues, for those who avoid discomfort.
Bijan means ‘hero’, stemming from the great national epic of Iran, the Shahnameh: famous for preserving the Farsi language and Iranian cultures for the present generation. Yet Australia doesn’t embrace my father’s name and many like his. Those on the receiving end of a “Hi, I’m John” grimace and go on with their day.
Other times, it is a detriment to an individual to have their name adapted into a foreign form. It disconnects them from their origins and stirs a questioning of respect. My mother, Arezoo, has heard it all. Her loyal customers stress the ‘a’ as in ‘apple’, the ‘zoo’ as in ‘zoo’ and so on, until her name, meaning ‘wish’ or ‘desire’, becomes unrecognisable. My mother suppresses her anger, her desire to correct and assert her identity in the name of customer service. A cafe owner can’t possibly correct those who mispronounce her name, can she?
As a child I recalled hearing:
“We named you Danial because it’s easy to pronounce in English, but we have a Farsi version of it too. دانیال. It works for both sides.”
Ah, the both sides argument. Pleasing the ethnic side – the Iranians who praise my beautiful name – whilst also pleasing the white majority. Those who find it easy to throw out a ‘Dan’ here or there whenever calling out to grab my attention. Names are more than just an arrangement of syllables. They encapsulate entire histories and epistemologies. My name, first and last, is the most distinct signifier of my ethnic identity. One that I’m proud of and won’t compromise. Especially for ‘Dan’, which makes me feel like an old white man with a bald head.
I don’t want to settle for the red squiggly line in Microsoft Word. We shouldn’t have to press “ignore all” when we carve our name into our work, life and relationships. The slightest hint of ethnicity should not trigger an alert. Ethnic names do not deserve red lines. Sometimes, I want to uninstall Microsoft Word altogether and return to my grandparents home to hear the story of دانیال, an old and wise advisor to the shahs of old.
The English language is inescapable. The coloniser’s language, the oppressor’s language and the world’s privileged Western language is everywhere. Its self-proclaimed superiority is in our advertising, in our correspondence and in every foreign nation you go to that doesn’t naturally speak English. But it won’t seep into my name. I won’t let it. I will define what I am, who I am and what I am called on my own terms. I am Danny.
I won’t settle for convenience and I won’t allow those tongues to evade the respect my parents deserve and that I deserve. I feel for my parents, both with beautiful ethnic names that speak to their characters, and I wish to take a different course. Danny, an awakening, is only a small star in the greater constellation of navigating cultural identity.
My name is a keepsake no one can take from me. And it’s something that can’t be taken from other ethnic-Australians out there. Say my name: دانیال. And if you can’t, Danny will do.