You Can Call Me [Insert Name Here]

My bhalonam and daknam, and the pressure to use either name, have defined my identity as a daughter of immigrants.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

To everyone I care about,

I’m afraid to admit that I have been lying to you. Strangely enough, nothing with official importance will ever expose this lie: my birth certificate still says “Gulam,” and so do the attendance roster, my College Board homepage, and my ARISTA tutors tag.

This lie started on my first day of kindergarten in Astoria, Queens, as I was standing in a single-file line that blocked the narrow, gray hallway. While dozens of emotional five-year-olds milled about, I silently rehearsed the lines that my mother drilled into my head. Hi, Ms. Pashalidis, my name is… my name is…

“Hi, sweetheart. What’s your name?”

“Uhhhh… Oyshi.”

My teacher’s eyebrows furrowed in concern. There was no Oyshi printed in faint ink on her attendance sheet. 

“Sorry, did you mean ‘Otto?’ Are you Otto?”

“No, I’m Oyshi.”

A call with the main office cleared the misunderstanding. I was not Oyshi; I was Gulam Mayeshah Monawarah. This name was not familiar to me, though I’d heard it floating about in hushed whispers and miserable legal papers. From then on, I’ve struggled to convince the teachers in this small Greek-American town to legitimize my real name. But I can’t blame it on my peers either: as years passed, it became more difficult to explain the mixup. How could I tell people that Gulam was just a cover that I’d been using for a year? Then two years? Five? 10?

In middle school, I realized the full gravity of what had happened. I often dub my tweens my “no-NRI” phase: middle school was underlined by my obsession with reconnecting with my Bengali heritage. I threw myself into the world of Bollywood musicals, the language, clothes, and culture. Most importantly, I learned that in Bangladesh, there exists a bhalonam and a daknam. Bhalonam, literally translated to Good Name, is your legal label and nothing more. Your daknam is what you use in every other context and is more intrinsic than Western nicknames. My brother is called Ishan, which is technically his last name, but to my family, it’s his real name. My mother’s daknam is Nipa, and I haven’t heard anyone call her Nasrin, her bhalonam. My daknam is Oyshi, and Gulam is someone else. A different girl, a different reality.

It’s an understatement to say that I was falling apart at the hands of this two-faced life. Though it seems like a trivial misunderstanding, the split name fueled my larger identity crisis. On my 16th birthday, I invited two non-South Asian friends, while the rest were Bengali friends who’d known me since I was born.

“I’m confused,” my friend probed, looking up from the Netflix screen. “Did your cousins call you ‘Oyshi?’”

“Uh… yeah, it’s just an inside joke or whatever.”

“I don’t know; no one else called you ‘Gulam’ tonight. I felt a little left out the whole time.”

The conversation drifted into silence after that, as my thoughts only grew louder and louder in my head. It felt quite ironic that on the eve of my 16th, a day meant to represent the transition into adulthood, I was still struggling with something as fundamental as my name. Choosing between Gulam or Oyshi was suffocating me. Without a relatable role model, I felt isolated.

With the introduction of Jhumpa Lahiri’s novel The Namesake in AP English, I found a fictional character to share my struggles with. The protagonist is a child of immigrant parents from the Bengali region of India. His parents’ misunderstanding of American culture leads to his bhalonam and daknam being lumped together into one alien sound: Gogol. Throughout his life, Gogol wrestles with his name and even changes it to Nikhil, something more obviously Indian. But this attempt fails to neutralize his self-loathing (very relatable); Gogol, though he hates it, is tied to his late father’s dreams, his childhood, and his identity. And in many ways, Gogol’s story is mine. Gulam is tied to my best and worst memories: it’s written on birthday cards, etched into door frames, and stored in elementary school handwriting worksheets. If I chose to change my name to Oyshi, that wouldn’t do my identity justice.

Some may say that this is dishonest and simply makes introductions more confusing, but that’s not true. Countries like India, Bangladesh, Japan, and China, and the cultures that they participate in, prove that sentiment wrong. Naming conventions in many Eastern Asian regions follow a [Family surname, First name] structure, which isn’t officially recognized in the U.S. by most institutions. In parts of Nigeria, children tend to have three “part names”: the oruko (for personal use), oriki (for praise), and orile (which connects them to their community). Daknams and similar practices, such as those of Thailand, aren’t legally valid in the U.S. There are hundreds of naming conventions around the world that I could not possibly describe, which shows the fluidity and multiplicity of names. We ought not to repeat the crimes of 19th- and 20th-century Americans, who urged immigrants landing on Ellis Island to crumple up their ancestral names and spit out Anglo ones. Forcing immigrants and their descendants to shed naming conventions in favor of a (boring, straight-laced) Western one is incredibly harmful. 

So, what do I do now? The current convention of having one name and sticking to it for the rest of my life doesn’t reflect the constant, ubiquitous changes that I experience. Having strangers calling me Oyshi, a name so intimate and dear to my culture, feels as strange as having my closest friends call me Gulam. It’s more than a nickname or a preference: these two namesakes represent different sides of me to equal degrees, so keeping them both reflects my personality best. From now on, I’d like to choose who calls me Gulam and who calls me Oyshi. In formal settings or when I’m with strangers, I’ll gladly write “Gulam” on my sticky name tag. When I’m spending time with friends, Oyshi rings true. If you’re unclear about which to call me, please don’t play Eenie-Meenie-Minie-Moe and torture yourself. Just ask, and you’ll get my answer.


[insert name here]