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Wednesday June 29, 2022

In Search of A Name

It was just one of those days. I felt like looking through old photo albums filled with baby photos and family trips. First, I got my baby album out: the leather cover was dusty and the edges had lost their shine, but just holding it in my hand made me feel connected to a part of me that I was never going to relive — childhood. The silly faces, memories and experiences flowed together to create euphoria. As I flipped through the pages, I stopped at one of the pictures of me as a newborn with a wristband that said “Girl Dam.” 

As I grew up, my name became the first step in discovering who I really was. My identity was tied to a name, which riddled me with conflicting emotions. Then, I was only about four years old, but I decided to ask my parents how my name came to be Ahona Dam. The journey continues now, as I discover myself and the connection I have to my culture and society. 

In our tradition, a child’s name is very significant and meaningful because it’s said to reflect their personality. A positive name is also said to embody a person’s character throughout their life. In India, there is a naming ceremony for the child after they are born. My parents are from Kolkata, India, where this ceremony is called an annaprashan*. I had my annaprashan in the United States but was technically named before leaving the hospital in Massachusetts due to certain rules regarding birth certificates. 

For many years, I thought my name was ugly and unpronounceable. However, time and time again, when the cashier at Starbucks or a new teacher who I’ve never met tells me that my name is beautiful, it restores all of the past feelings of joy that I’d felt upon hearing my name when I was younger.

My parents told me that for my first name, they hadn’t looked at any baby name books or searched online for the most popular girl names. When my relatives knew that I was going to be a girl, all of them gave my parents suggestions for names. My dad and all my uncles have first names starting with the letter A, so my parents continued the tradition and named me and my sister Anisha and Ahona. Ahona was chosen by both my grandmother and my mom and it means “the first dawn of light.” Ahona was chosen for its beauty and simplicity. My parents hoped that I would live my life with pure joy and that the aspect of “light” in my name would illuminate a path of happiness and success. 

Sometimes I question if my name really resembles me, and I guess it depends. When I was younger, I personified my name and lived up to its uniqueness. I was vivacious, full of life and always had a smile on my face. I loved hearing my name and knowing that it was unique made me have a positive outlook on myself. 

Now, I’m not always cheerful and bright. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve become more shy and  self-conscious, which has changed my understanding of my name and how I perceive it today. Trying to fit in and not being able to really discover who I am has left me feeling empty. In those moments I don’t resemble “the first dawn of light,” rather I feel unmotivated and unhappy. But when I’m with friends and family or when I am doing something that I’m passionate about, that’s when I embody a ray of sunshine. When I am doing an art project, like making birthday cards, or writing poetry, I become a different person. These creative outbursts, as embodied by my name, have allowed me to discover a new way to cope with my anxieties and insecurities. 

As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to face different situations regarding my name and that has caused me to not fully appreciate the culture and traditions that it holds. Pronunciation has always been a big issue. Hearing the wrong pronunciation of my name makes me anxious and often I find myself not correcting people when they make that mistake. After, I feel guilty for not doing so because it feels as if I dishonoured my culture and roots. I get trapped. I’ve always hoped that I would be a confident young woman, outspoken and opinionated on the ideas of the world. 

Sometimes I question if my name really resembles me, and I guess it depends. When I was younger, I personified my name and lived up to its uniqueness.

However, this “Ahaana” or “Ohana” knocks me down in embarrassment. To this day, I remember an instance in elementary school when a visitor came to show us a science experiment. I was one of the chosen volunteers. I was excited and ready to be a part of the coming experiments, but all of that drained away after the scientist completely mispronounced my name. I heard laughter scattered throughout the audience. Even though I felt uncomfortable, I never stepped in to correct the mistake. After that day, Ahona was no longer a name I associated with my culture; rather, it branded me as unusual and different. 

As a first-generation US citizen and child of Indian immigrants, I have sometimes wished that my parents had given me a more “Western” name just so I would fit in. Since I was a little girl, they have always explained to me how lucky I was to have such a beautiful and unique name, but even then, all I wanted to be was like everyone else. When I saw my peers and noticed how easily their names rolled off their tongues, I was jealous. I didn’t like how my name sounded, and I transformed the meaning into something negative instead. 

For many years, I thought my name was ugly and unpronounceable. However, time and time again, when the cashier at Starbucks or a new teacher who I’ve never met tells me that my name is beautiful, it restores all of the past feelings of joy that I’d felt upon hearing my name when I was younger. In those moments, I feel proud to have a name that cherishes individuality and spotlights my complex personality.  

The way I see myself today is different from what I saw when I was younger. Experiences and challenges have allowed me to grow immensely and I am grateful for learning from those moments. Being exposed to situations where my name has been ridiculed or seen as uncommon has allowed me to discover my name in a new way. I’ve taken the time to recognize my roots and the colourful attributes that make my name beautiful and special. My name is who I am — it is a personal label, which is simultaneously daunting and empowering. Reflecting on my past and learning about the origins of my name have led me to fully appreciate my culture and the traditions and values that it holds. Through my name, the memories of both pain and happiness have sewn together the past and present to create my self-identity.

*Annaprashan – a ceremony common to the Bengali Hindu community to introduce a newborn child to solid foods. Typically takes place at the age of six months.

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