The names that we can’t leave behind

Crossing borders we sometimes suffer losses. Our career. Our identity. Our name.

The struggle is to recover from these losses.

Here is an excellent contribution from one of our global bloggers about the name she could not forsake.

You can find it here and at

By Saideh Jamshidi

I love My Name


What is your name? How do you sing your name to a first-time visitor? How do you feel about your name? Have you ever struggled to pronounce your name in English?  Perhaps you have gone so far as to change your name due to the awkward and ugly pronunciation that people apply to your name?

If any of these experiences or feelings are familiar to you, you could probably relate to my world.

My name is Saideh. It means a “happy woman” in Arabic. And yes, in fact, I am a happy woman Sometimes I am a naively optimistic and foolishly forward-looking individual. While this all may sound positive, it can often be a hindrance in this world of pessimism and political correctness. However, I couldn’t relate to the meaning of my name a few years ago after I had decided to call the United States my new home. In the US, I can speak and write in the beautiful language of Milton, Shakespeare and Hemingway. I have even started to see dreams in my new language. The characters in my dreams have also adapted to this new language; figures in my dreams no longer speak in Farsi, my native language from Iran. Even my parents, whom do not converse in English in real life, speak with flawless American accents with me in my dreams. For instance, my dad, in my dreams, would say “Oh, Saideh, your city’s temperature is excruciatingly cold in winter,” or “these US officials are so provocative, pervert and corrupt, just like Iranian officials”, or “I just cannot overcome my xenophobia over this American people.” I am sure you got the idea. Words like excruciatingly, provocative, pervert, xenophobia, … I even do not know these words and am just learning their meanings.

I am so assimilated with this culture that I can now cook an omega size Turkey for Thanksgiving dinner, or perfectly fry mash potato, or bake a corn bread. However, all of my Americanisms evaporate as soon as I open my mouth and sing my name with my Farsi-English accent. Behind the rhythm, people hear a foreign, exotic, and strange melody.

Looking back, I realize that I was too eager to be a full-fledged American. I wanted people to consider me an insider. In order to pave the way and make my road to becoming an American easier, I decided to change the spelling of my name when I became a US citizen. I thought that if I removed some of the vowels in the original spelling(S-a-e-e-d-e-h), people would have an easier time pronouncing it. The new spelling became “S-a-i-d-e-h.” In my  bloody mind, I had no doubt that people would have an easier time with the new spelling.

Of course, it would not take long before I was proved wrong.

When I filed my application for immigration, I was given an “alien number.” To the officers at Homeland Security, all immigrants, including myself, looked strange. We ate weird food, speak different language, and dressed too modest. However, the officers seemed to think that we immigrants had acquired a very high intellect. That’s why they called us “alien” and gave us an alien number, I guess. We were strange, but smart.

Yet again, even after I was naturalized, received an American passport, got the privilege to vote, and changed the spelling of my name, no one could understand me properly—not  even myself at times. First, I had to pronounce my name with my Farsi-English accent at least 3 to 4 times each time. The sound was so strange that they couldn’t comprehend what I was saying. When they would try to repeat it, it took quite a bit of tongue aerobics. They would also slide their jaws to the left, then to the right as they forced their lower lip forward and said something like “Saee,” or “Sadah” or “Saeeeeeeedah.”

I always appreciated their efforts. I thought: If they couldn’t understand my name, how are they going to understand what I was saying through my thick accent? I had always found Americans to be very polite and open to new experiences. Despite this fact, I felt I was never fully included.  I felt like my name was a barrier between us, like some weird sickness that kept them all at bay and not wanting to interact with me.

I had thought, read, and contemplated over my name far too long. The best explanation I could find about a response to one’s name was in a book called The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje. The book was adapted into a movie in 1996 and won nine Academy Awards. Within the book, Count Almasy, a Hungarian count, says: “But I wanted to erase my name and the place I had come from. By the time war arrived, after ten years in the desert, it was easy for me to slip across borders, not to belong to anyone, to any nation.”

One’s name is a sacred object. It is an attachment that helps someone to feel connected, and to feel a sense of belonging. Thankfully, we live in an era where people do not feel obligated to change their name just to speed up their assimilation to another culture. In a recent study, the New York Times examined more than 500 applications at the Civil Court in New York City. New York has a greater foreign-born population than any other city in the United States, so it was an obvious place to look. The study revealed that only “a half a dozen of those applications appeared to be obviously intended to Anglicize or abbreviate the surname with Latin America or Asia.”

The truth of the matter is that I do not feel foreign anymore. I can speak fluent English and I can compose perfect lines. But my struggle to sound normal and natural never seems to end. My most recent battle with this issue occurred when Mr. Stephen Franklin, director of Ethnic Media Project in Chicago, asked me to contribute to their organization.  I saw this as an opportunity to once again attempt to simplify my name. I thought, finally, I can solve the problem of “Saideh” by changing it to “Saba.”

Saba means ”zephyr” or “gentle breeze” in Farsi. I  actually used this as a pen name back in Iran when I was writing for different publications. Since the volume of my articles and reports were very high, my editors suggested that I publish some of my articles under a pen name. I chose Saba Mohaghegh.  I thought I was being clever until I was faced with reality one day while ordering a soy late at Starbucks.

“You said your name was what?” the cashier asked.

“Saba,” I said.

“Excuse me, what?” she exclaimed.

“Saba,” I said, “S-A-B-A.”

She thanked me with a fake big smile.

However foreign a name can be to any particular set of ears, my name is so familiar to me. I have lived, dreamed and grown up with my name. Fortunately, I live in a country where the population at large doesn’t mind a strange and exotic name on my passport. With the passing of each year, many people share the same experience on a more frequent basis.

So, now that I think of it, I think I will reconsider and ask Mr. Franklin to change my name back to what it was…what is supposed to be: Saideh.