It took more than 20 years for me to realize I didn't want to be an Amy, a Jennifer or a Jessica. In the end, I chose myself: Amen.
Amen. The final word to every prayer. It's universal and identifiable in multiple incarnations around the world: Ameen, Iman, Aman, to name a few. It is also usually a boy's name - and I am often mistaken for one on paper.
In my case, however, Amen is the Urdu word for peace. My family is from Pakistan, but I was born in Canada. My late grandfather, our family's patriarch, revelled in the art of naming his grandchildren, and so I was announced into the world as Amen Jehan (peace in the world). The name served as a useful double pun - not only was I born in the year of Trudeau's Peace Initiative (1983), but as the youngest of three I also marked the end of the line, or "so be it," another definition for amen.
My name has history and culture, yet it took my grandfather's passing last November for me to fully appreciate it. Blame it on personality, self-loathing, internal racism or a mixture of all three. Growing up, I remember wishing that I was the female equivalent of a Tom, Dick or Harry.
I was a shy kid and preferred to be the wallflower. But a name like mine means stepping into the spotlight, and I've had my share of mortifying moments. Like when I was first introduced to the Grade 2 music teacher and she said: "Your name is Amen? I know a great song by that name!"
She then led the whole class in chanting and clapping their hands along to the song Amen (which requires repeating "Amen" over and over, at varying pitches), while I cowered in the corner silently cursing my unusual name and wishing I was anywhere else. This would not be the last time a stranger broke into an impromptu rendition of Amen after meeting me.
What I dreaded most every school year was the inevitable encounters with new teachers who had to learn my name. Mornings were the worst. I would blush in anticipation at roll call as the teacher read out each student's name, my anxiety rising as I waited for my turn in the Js. If the teacher pronounced my name incorrectly, it meant raising my voice to correct him or her, knowing my confidence would desert me under the scrutiny of all those eyes.
During my sulky teen years I loathed meeting new people, knowing the conversation would revolve around my name. Many of my encounters typically fell along these lines: "I'm Joe. What's your name?"
"Ahmen - wow, that is (unique/special/interesting)! What is the origin, may I ask?"
What I wanted to say was no, you may not ask. That's none of your business. What's the meaning of your name, Joe? You probably don't even know because your name is common and doesn't require any explanation.
Instead what I said was, "It's pronounced Ay-men, actually. It's Urdu."
After a while it felt like I was repeating the lines of a script.
I remember secretly envying recognizable and popular names such as Amy and Jessica. These were "Canadian" names. They didn't provoke questions about origin. They were accepted at face value and were easy to spell and pronounce.
My name did none of these things. I could not wear it proudly because it emphasized my difference more than I already felt in physical appearance as a person of colour. If I had a common name then at least on a superficial level or on paper I would not need to feel that difference.
As a teenager I succeeded in carrying out this fantasy online, using the moniker Amy in the heyday of chat rooms. Amy was easiest to adopt, since most people mistook my name for it anyway when I introduced myself.
It was a thrill to assume a name not particularly associated with any race or culture, but by default meant white. It gave me a clean slate to work with and meant I could assume any personality I wanted. I didn't have to stand out in any way and could easily blend in with everyone else on the Internet. Of course, that anonymity is what attracts a lot of people to the online world, but in my case it felt extra meaningful.
Once offline, though, I never felt comfortable about adopting the name Amy. Even then I knew it meant betraying part of my heritage.
With age and increased confidence, it's easier for me to look at the past and wonder why I chose to respond as I did. At the time I felt like those were the only appropriate reactions and I felt frustration at the world for "forcing" me to experience those emotions. But now I see that it was me.
Yes, my name is different. Yes, some people may perceive it as strange (one former friend, as I recall, compared it to naming a kid Hallelujah). But so what? My name is one aspect of me, but it does not define me.
Sometimes I wonder how my life would have turned out if I had had a confident, gregarious and outgoing personality - perhaps then I might have grown up flaunting my name instead of cowering behind it.
We live and we learn.
I have learned to embrace my name because it is the most personal connection I have to my late grandfather. My name was his first gift to me - a gift sealed by his wit, artistic sensibility and spiritual devotion.
Amen to that.
Amen Jafri lives in Ottawa.