“What’s Your Name?” — On everyday little questions with big answers
This essay by fellow Interintellect Amir H. Hajizamani first appeared on the newsletter Showing My Working
There are common questions everyone gets asked that seem to require a simple and short answer, but can go much deeper. The expected short answer may be the 10% tip that appears above the surface, with 90% of it hidden below, deep and heavy.
I’ve known for a long time that “where are you [really] from?” is one such question for me, and many others and othereds. Another deep and heavy question I encountered recently is “how many siblings do you have?” when asked of someone who has grieved the loss of a brother. I can’t fathom the complexity of emotions that would touch.
I’ve now discovered that for me “What’s your name?” is another.
The Answers to “What’s Your Name?”
What’s iceberg-y about that? For most people most of the time, it’s not. I didn’t think it was for me either. But then I went and did the silly thing of paying attention to my feelings and found the deep and heavy 🤦🏽♂️
It started with doing a seemingly cringey ‘meet your inner child’/reparenting exercise with my therapist. I just couldn’t connect to the kid in the memory I had picked. I tried choosing a different memory. Tried to zhuzh myself up and blow away the scepticism. But it wasn’t happening. I gave up for a few days.
When I tried again later, alone, I was a bit looser. The conversation between adult and child me still felt stilted and awkward so I kept resetting. Then something clicked. I changed my mental language to Persian, and called the child what he was called at the time.
Ahhh! He looked up! His face was more open! I used his actual friggin’ name and he engaged!
I insist on Amir H. Hajizamani wherever I can. I use amirhhz as my handle. A nod, but not full recognition. A dissociation hidden in plain sight. I’ve often felt self-conscious or pompous for insisting that my initials be included in seemingly unimportant displays of my name (bank cards are my pet peeve). But I’ve still felt compelled to include it. Unlike many other things in my life, the fear of judgement from others never stopped me insisting on this one letter. And I never thought much of this until the experience above.
Some people might be thinking: “Well, it’s not very unusual for people to be attached to their middle name, or include it as standard. What’s the big deal?”
Sure. Let me take you to another scene, one that’s a staple part of my conversational programming.
Person: “Hi, what’s your name?”
Me (brain): [Oh, make sure you don’t say “I’m …” because that sound melts too easily into “Amir” and people end up mishearing.]
Me: “Hiya, my name is Amir”
Me (brain): [Queue up spelling in case of a “Sorry, what?” to avoid the 3 awkward back-and-forths situation]
Person: “A-mir? Or a-MEER?”
Me (brain): [Ugh, both are wrong, especially if you’ve a British accent and don’t roll your R’s]
Me: “Either is fine.”
Person: “Nice … so where are you from?”
Me: [RUNS OUT SCREAMING]
The last bit is in jest / for another episode. But what I want to illustrate is that even in this best case scenario, I rarely hear my name said correctly. Even the shortened version.
A more annoying version that’s been happening recently:
I know this white person who seems to invest a lot of their sense of identity in promoting social justice and being angry about the world. They have been calling me “AA-mer”, the South Asian-style pronunciation of the name. I’ve never introduced myself as such, they never asked how I’d like my name pronounced, and no-one else calls me that in the contexts we share together. I’m certain this is well-intentioned and perhaps they feel they’re doing a great job of saying my name correctly, according to whatever experience they have.
I know it doesn’t seem like a big deal, and that I should correct them the next time it happens (I will, potentially risking having to deal with their white fragility about it). But every time I’ve heard them say my name so innovatively wrong it’s been like a flick behind the ear. Not a big deal, but it happens enough times, you get pissed. I know it’s my boundary to set (and again, I will at the next opportunity) but the point here is that even the most well-intentioned people contribute to a degradation and dissociation of my sense of self that I need to negotiate and modulate one way or another.
History of a Name
How does one get to being dissociated from their own name and their past?
When I was first enrolled in a British school at the age of 12, it was under the name “Amir Zamani”. This was a bid by my parents to simplify things for the British people I would be encountering — ever the Good Immigrants they were. Occasionally, I would delight at my initials being “AZ”. I felt an irreverent joy at helping people with the pronunciation even further by saying “rhymes with Armani”. I changed schools twice in two years and repeated this shtick each time. It became ingrained.
A year or two later, I was picking subjects for my GCSE’s. Somehow, I clocked onto the fact that my name would appear on my certificates and that it would not match my passport and other official documents (matching what my family actually called me was an afterthought). I asked my parents to “fix” my name at the school to “Amir Hossein Hajizamani”. I now had a middle name. I’d never had a middle name before. Just “Amirhossein”. Yes, my family would *shock horror* say the WHOLE thing each time they’d call me.
As far as I know, there’s no particular significance to “Amir” or “Hossein” — fairly common names in Iranian culture. The minor significance according to my parents is that within their social circle at the time, giving children these “double” names was à la mode, and within my cohort of cousins I was the first to be given a double name. Many others in our extended family followed suit, so I guess my parents felt like trendsetters or something.
But even a mediocre name can only take so much beating. In assimilating into a new culture, I’d lost part of my given and family name, then I’d regained them in a different structure, and to this day, most people don’t even say my amputated name properly. Let’s not even get started on ‘Hajizamani’ (FWIW: it’s incredibly phonetic, no tricks, just say the syllables, two letters at a time).
So … What IS Your Name, man?!
Look, this already feels like such a self-indulgent and narcissistic post — scrolling up and down and seeing so many mentions of my name makes me feel pretty uncomfortable.
So let me be clear: I’m not asking anyone to learn and practice the pronunciation of “Amir” to make me feel better, or to call me “Amir Hossein” all of a sudden — I mean who’s got the time when you’ve so got many sourdough breads to make or whatever.
I’m just sharing this. Perhaps making up for years of ceding ground when it comes to my name by taking a little bit of Internet space about it now.
There’ll be people of a variety of backgrounds who might relate to what I’ve described here to some degree. Whether you do or you don’t, be mindful but avoid guilt about saying someone’s “weird” name badly. Don’t make it awkward for them, just do your best and ask for help if the context seems appropriate, or listen to how they say it and just do that. Just beware that that person is already that tiny bit more drained than you from just doing introductions.
And I’m going to go and hear what little Amirhossein has to say, now that I’ve successfully introduced myself to him.