My name commands the truth. Its five letters and three syllables have always rolled effortlessly off my tongue, but are often mangled and regurgitated from the mouths of others. As a kid, I loathed its abnormality, and was filled with envy for the girls who swung around their store-bought, name-engraved key chains. Once I got to Penn, I initially resolved to shorten it — a Western-sounding nickname in order to make it easier on the people I met. To make it easier on me: not having to repeat it five times only for it to be immediately forgotten, not having to be asked if I would prefer to be called something different. I folded myself away for the sake of convenience.
Last year, Penn admitted its most diverse freshman class to date. This is progress. More students from more cultures around the world entered our campus this past August than any year prior, and they brought with them their heritages and stories of home. The first thing you tell someone when you meet them — before inevitably bringing up your major or your hometown — is your name. It holds weight. It’s how people identify you, and can be one of the key factors in determining how the world sees you. In my personal life, I eventually gave up correcting people altogether. If it didn’t matter to me, why should it to others?
These deep-set insecurities carried themselves far beyond my name. I couldn’t shake the sense of obligation that told me I had to choose. Some days, I felt beautiful, a timid sort of beauty, when I carefully curated my outfit — likely sporting whatever current fad had caught the interest of the people around me — in a desperate effort to blend in, or in my soft smile when I was told I was pretty (for a girl who looked like me). Other days, I was brave, when I forced myself to not be scared as I walked into middle school on the first day, a lost, brown droplet in a sea of white skin, or when I struggled to build up the courage to openly discuss the things that I was actually passionate about. The bravery never lasted long, and it was evident that something had to change.
Along with the writer within me that began to emerge from a young age, I discovered my subconscious obsession with names. I’ve been writing since I was 11 years old, but I never began putting pen to paper by using the Freytag’s plot pyramid that they taught us in middle school English. I didn’t focus on the beginning, middle, or end — for me, everything started with the subject or character’s name. It was my universal starting point — I was so adamant in the belief that someone’s name is a powerful tool in understanding who they are and the mark they make on the world. Once a name is stuck in my head, I have an extraordinary craving to tell its story. One night, after deciding that I would no longer be victim to the irony that was my enthrallment with all names but my own, I set out on a mission. After my arduous journey to the fifth page of Google, I found a website that held my answer — the meaning of my name. Squinting at the unfamiliar Japanese characters on the screen, I realized I was looking at not one meaning, but two.
The first was gentle, with its soft, swooping curves, like the mesmerizing flicks of a watercolor brush. It meant "beautiful." Scrolling to the second form, I felt it was impossible that they symbolized the same thing: this one was filled with harsh, bold lines, stacked in dissonance atop of each other, sharp and complex. It meant “brave.” Unable to grasp how one word could diverge into two polar opposites, I decided on “or.” “Or” became my mantra:
“My name? It means beautiful, or it means brave.”
Constant reminders that your name is “difficult,” or blatant resigns from efforts of correct pronunciation, can slowly eat away at self-esteem. You don’t want to be a bother when you tell someone how to say your name for the fifth time. You don’t want a job to turn you away for the title that identifies you on your resume. You don’t want to be relegated to a sense of “otherness” for something as simple as a name.
Although it may require long-term effort and activism to produce the meaningful, structural changes in the ways we and others perceive our own names professionally and socioculturally, you can decide to advocate for yourself and your name whenever you want or need to. We should never feel pressured to compromise our names in order to fit into certain boundaries of what is considered “normal” or “easy.” You might adopt a nickname, go by your initials, or be known by your middle name — but the bottom line is that it’s your choice and nobody else’s. Self-advocacy can so often feel daunting when it feels like you’re doing it in isolation, but the security of your identity and pride in yourself are eternally more important than what might feel like a minor inconvenience to someone else’s day.
Several years passed until I found myself on the name website again, but this time it was different. I decided that not only could the delicate, elegant script work in tandem with the striking, heavy one, but so could the layers of who I am. This time, I chose “and.”
As I began to believe with conviction that my bravery and beauty could coexist, I finally grew into myself. In my writing, the beauty of words unified with my increasingly dauntless voice — it was no longer my escape, but instead a platform to discuss issues that I was passionate about. The pressure to separate yourself from your name and your heritage can feel insurmountable, but it’s arguably the most important journey of self-love for those of us learning to embrace our heritages and ourselves.
I used to dream of the names I wished I had, but today I choose mine. You should choose yours, in whatever sense that may mean for you. Five letters taught me that I can be vulnerable while still believing I’m strong. Three syllables made me understand that I can persevere and fight for my beliefs unapologetically, knowing that no one, including myself, can ever make me choose again: my beauty comes from my strength. I say it with confidence. I say it with pride. For the rest of my life, I will say it as a symbol of my truth. Isami.
ISAMI MCCOWAN is a College sophomore from Durham, NC studying Politics, Philosophy, and Economics. Her email address is email@example.com.
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