Off the beat: What's in a name?

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FEBRUARY 12, 2015

After brief introductions, my seventh grade teacher started calling roll, and I took it as my cue to be extra attentive, just in case. She would get through the Cs, Es and Gs with relative ease and I would look at all the Annes, Joes and Peters with jealousy at having won the easy name lottery. When she finished with the Ks and moved toward the Ls, I knew I had to prepare myself for battle once again. Would there be a pause, a sigh or an apology coupled with an “I’m probably going to say this wrong, but here we go” this time?

Whenever this would happen, I’d hear the unsure panic forming at the back of their throats and to save them from their misery (and just unnecessary embarrassment for the both of us), I learned to automatically raise my hand whenever there was a hint of deceleration near the middle of the alphabet. Other teachers would start spelling out S-O-Y-O-L-M-A-A for fear of butchering my name and deeply offending me but end up sounding ridiculous while doing it anyways. They would move onto my last name and say with a chuckle, “I’m not even going to try that one,” and we would laugh and laugh until those with Ms and onward became uncomfortable. I would patiently repeat my name a good three to five times and watch the sparkle in their eyes slightly diminish at their inability to grasp the foreign formation of the letters they thought they knew so well.

Needless to say, I formed a love/hate relationship with first days of school since I moved to the United States from Mongolia at the tender age of 8. Of course, like any other kid, I would be ecstatic about seeing all my friends again and praying for at least one of them to be in my lunch period lest I should have to eat alone in a bathroom stall, but something else also held a strong anxiety in my heart as I lay awake in the middle of the previous night. I wondered how many times I would have to repeat my name, tell everyone its origins, and disappoint them for not having a cool, short nickname that could simultaneously capture all of my personality in a few letters. Why couldn’t my name just be Jane, Tchaikovsky or The Real Slim Shady or something people could actually pronounce?

Unfortunately, my search for an easier nickname has been fruitless as it’s proven difficult to shorten or even make an anagram out of the letters of my name. It’s way harder than Voldemort made it seem, and the only shortened nickname I and others could come up with was Soy. Seemingly clever middle school kids and grown adults have all thought they were being original for adding food products after it, which is why I refuse it as a nickname and as a dairy substitute.

Having a unique name always holds disappointment for some and inspires awe in others. All of a sudden, people want to know the meaning behind your name and are not satisfied when it doesn’t have some deep, spiritual explanation they had wanted. I want to tell them that I’m the equivalent of a Britney or a Sara in Mongolia, but they’re too busy asking me to repeat it 10 more times, allowing me to forget their names in the process.

There are some perks to having an extremely unique name by American standards. First, there will most likely never be two Soyolmaas in a class, which prevents any confusion. Second, in my 10th grade driver’s ed class, I had a teacher who feared mispronouncing my name so much that she refused to even say it out loud. She would call on everyone in the class to answer questions but me. I would sit there and make direct eye contact with her knowing full well that she would never call on me if I didn’t raise my hand. It was honestly too much power for a teenager without a driver’s license.

At age 16, my stepfather asked if I wanted to adopt his family name, Evans, like my mother had done years after they married. For a split second, I thought this would somehow miraculously solve all of my problems. No longer would I have to wait with bated breath as I’m called for attendance or wonder what name to give to make reservations easier. Heck, I would never have to endure the panic of needing to quickly choose what name I want written on my Starbucks coffee cup, but Evans just didn’t feel right. I had had to endure the burden of both my first and last names for years and to change one felt like I was changing a part of my identity.

And at the end of the day, my name is constant red underlines in Word and being asked whether I hit random letters on a keyboard so people couldn’t find me on Facebook. My name is not Sonoma, but it is having less than a handful of people know how to spell it correctly. My name is having an abundant amount of anecdotes to fill up an autobiography titled, “That’s not my name,” and that’s perfectly okay.

Contact Soyolmaa Lkhagvadorj at 


FEBRUARY 12, 2015