I kept my native name

Ifeoma Osakwe, Contributing Columnist


“What’s in a name?” (Maggie Pasterz)

Last summer, I had the all typical “leaving-home” conversations with my family and one extra. My mother painted a distant picture of me not getting a job I was qualified for because of the name printed on my application, urging me to consider the opportunities a “simpler” name would bring me. 

I argued that I would not go by my English name in college just because it would be easier for people to pronounce. In Nigeria, names are such a precious commodity that children are named only after careful deliberation of their meanings. My name, Ifeoma, means “good thing.” Even if it could have meant a difficult social integration, I was not going to give up my native name. So, I kept it.

I had heard all sorts of takes on the pronunciation of my name and thought it could not possibly be any different, let alone, any worse in college. It could not be that big a deal.

Honestly, I just wanted to challenge the narrative that people who moved to the United States need to trade significant aspects of their culture and traditions in order to fit into the new society.

Clearly, I did not think enough before making that decision. That much was evident when I encountered people who incorrectly assumed the spelling of my name, not bothering to ask for clarification. 

Curious, I performed social experiments to see which of my names the person behind the counter at a restaurant could spell correctly. I was Ifeoma on some days and Claire or Olivia on others. Olivia, one of my English names, was unsurprisingly the clear winner here, so I have resorted to using it in such scenarios. 

I know that by taking the easy route through the order placement process, I am starting to conform. I am slowly giving up my name and all the cultural significance behind it simply not to hold up the line; I am forfeiting a part of me for everyone else’s convenience. Am I wrong, though? Maybe I should have just listened and changed my name.

Now, nearly every introduction I make leads to a class on syllables and stress as people insist that they want to “get it right.” Of course, I appreciate the dedication that some people have in ensuring that they make me feel included by pronouncing my name correctly, even after I emphasize that I don’t mind a slight mispronunciation. Even so, repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempting to teach this class is just draining.

However, not everyone seems to be as well-intended. Every so often, I come across someone ambitious who takes learning my name as their new pet project, just to check itUntitled_Artwork-9.pdf

off their list. After assuming a clearly wrong transcription, they usually follow up by asking that I say it myself. Then, they claim to have been “close enough” the first time. There is definitely no “close enough” way to say my name.

However disappointing, none of these experiences came as a surprise. I anticipated both the most negative and most positive feedback and am always excited for the latter. I enjoy all the conversations about my cultural background that stem from just my name card, and I will happily share my experiences with anyone who cares to ask. These positive experiences occur much less often than my negative ones but do carry significantly more weight.

Nonetheless, I am happy I kept my native name. I cherish my background and will not give it up for temporary comfort. If upholding it means tirelessly explaining the correct pronunciation of my Nigerian name, I am willing to do it.

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