My name is Nishi Rahman, and I’ve always thought that my name didn’t have a meaning.
Well, let’s be clear. My name is Syed Nishdat Rahman. Up until now, I thought Nishdat was just some word my grandmother came up with because she liked the sound of it. But “Nishdat” never really harmonized with me, and instead of letting everybody hear my name, I took every step possible to cover it up.
After a few years of living in an incredibly diverse neighborhood in the Bronx, my family moved to Henderson, Nevada, which was as homogenous as a gallon of whole milk. I remember always being aware that I stuck out at school. I’d feel a wave of embarrassment whenever people couldn’t pronounce my name, and so I took great pains to make it easier for them. My anxiety would peak during roll call. My name went from “Nishdat” to “Nishi” (NISH-EE) to eventually “Nishi” (NEE-SHE). That is how most of my friends from back home know me, and it was something I didn’t really think about until fairly recently.
Last semester, my friends and I were studying, stressing about exams and just messing around when one of my good friends asked me, “Why do you change the way you pronounce your name?” I was confused. “This is how I’ve always pronounced my name,” I said. “It isn’t pronounced like ‘Nishi’ (NISH-EE)?” she asked. I told her that it was, but I changed it so long ago that I didn’t even consider pronouncing it another way. She reassured me. She said I could be proud of my name. “There’s no need to change it just to fit in.”
I thought about that conversation for a long time.
Was I really changing my name because I didn’t like the sound of it? Or was I changing my name because I thought my American friends and neighbors — people who care about me — would reject me if I had kept it?
I pored over my childhood memories hoping, praying that I didn’t do this to myself. I hoped that I didn’t throw away my name for something as trivial as what other people thought about me. My search turned up empty. It was true. While I lamented giving up a part of myself so easily, I realized something else — I wasn’t alone.
My sister pronounces her name differently at school than at home. And it wasn’t just her. My friend’s dad goes by Alex at work, even though it’s nowhere close to his real name. My other friends of color from back home did the same thing. None of us were alone.
This cultural shame is felt by so many people of all backgrounds, even cultural icons such as Hasan Minhaj. In one of his “Deep Cuts” videos, Minhaj talks about how at his first stand-up comedy performance, the stagehand told him that he’d be better off going by Sean because nobody would be able to pronounce his name.
He’s come a long way since then. Minhaj has undoubtedly become an inspiration to the Desi community at large, as well as a household name. During his interview on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” Minhaj chose to use his time to let people know how his name is really pronounced. He said his parents were in the audience and how it felt wrong that the name they gave him wasn’t being given the love that it should. I couldn’t agree more.
Our names are how we present ourselves to American society, both socially and especially politically. When I stopped using my real name, I basically said to everyone around me that my heritage didn’t have a real place in this country, in this society. And that is so far from the truth. I mean, imagine if Barack Obama went by Barry. Going by Barack, an African name, showed that he wasn’t just proud of his culture, he was empowered by it. Obama showed that his heritage doesn’t just have a place in this country, it is this country.
We all change our culturally tied names to make them more palatable for the United States; understanding this made me upset. A name is a beautiful thing — it should never be thrown away.
I always thought my name didn’t mean anything, but I was dead wrong. My name shows respect to my family, not just to my mom and dad, but to my entire family going back generations. My grandmother, my dadi, wanted my name to show respect for my grandfather, my dada. His name was Syed Midat Rahman, and so she took some creative license and made my name Syed Nishdat Rahman.
Sure, it doesn’t have a definition in some foreign language dictionary or a poetic meaning in the Quran, but my name means much more. Its meaning is shaped by my actions, beliefs and the good that I bring to the world. So, my name is Syed Nishdat Rahman, and I’m here to stay.
Nishi Rahman writes the Thursday column on cultural and political diversity as a second-generation American.