Making a Name for Myself

Sure, my moniker's a mouthful. But it's a lot of other things, too.

November/December 2002

Reading time min

Making a Name for Myself

Richard Downs

"What's in a name?" my father asked me the summer after I graduated from high school. And so began an internal struggle of Shakespearean proportions.

In grade school, substitute teachers eyed my name uneasily on the roll sheet. Ramin? Their apprehension was understandable: how could they know which syllable to stress and whether the vowels were long or short? Some teachers weren’t daring enough to attempt it, and called out my initials instead. Others pronounced it like a broken melody rubbing the wrong way down their vocal cords: Raw-men; Ray-men; Row-mean.

They’d ask me for its nationality.

I would shrug, then stare at my sneakers.

One day, prompted by a class assignment, I asked my parents about its heritage. They tried to explain. My name was from their country, which I had never visited. We were Iranian, all three of us, and my younger sister, too. But her name was Sheila, Americanized and normal—because, by the time she was born, my parents had learned the craft of integration.

I asked them what my name meant. “Creative,” they said, “and smart and independent and lucky.” Lucky! I grinned and shared the findings with my classmates. Later, I learned the truth: my parents didn’t know what my name meant. The adjectives they had given me described how they saw me.

Maybe I wasn’t so lucky after all.

But it didn’t matter, not much anyway. My name had become as much a part of my identity as the color of my eyes: Ramin, finish this book or Ramin, sit down or Ramin, nice work. Or Ramin, apply to college.

So I was stunned when, after I had been admitted to Stanford, my father suggested that I change my name.

“To what?” I asked.

“To anything more normal,” he said. “You’re starting a new life. It would make things easier.”

And there it was. The man who had named me was suggesting that I rename myself. It would not be difficult. He had done it—a few years ago, when applying for a new job—adopting an American self that fit him snugly. Only to me, the change went virtually unnoticed. No matter what his nameplate said at work, his name at home was the same: Dad.

The realization that I could toss aside my name like an old sweater caught me by surprise. I couldn’t do it.

Or could I? Beyond the mispronounced blunders every now and then, maybe I didn’t know the consequences of keeping an ethnic name. I had never experienced the kind of prejudice my parents had. Both of them came to the United States as college students just before the Iran hostage crisis. When negotiations between the two countries broke down, my mom was so scared she told her classmates that she was from Greece.

The idea of giving myself a new name sounded better as the summer went along. An American name would help if I became a journalist. News reporters meet people regularly, and my name sometimes feels like too much of a mouthful during introductions. But I wouldn’t have forever to toy with the idea. A college diploma has a way of sealing one’s name onto a sheet of very expensive paper. If I was going to make the change, I would have to do it before I graduated.

Freshman year, while others introduced themselves around the dinner table, I secretly borrowed each name and tried it on for size. Was I a Richard? Or a Jacob? Could I see myself as a Kenny? A John? A Mark? I browsed through a book of baby names in the library. I imagined how each would look as a byline. I searched for a name that would sound powerful and full of confidence—something that would be synonymous with success.

But in the end, nothing seemed quite right.

And I’ve come to understand why. My name is more than just a few letters strung together. It’s part of my history: the first word I learned to write, the echoing call of teammates while I dribbled the basketball on the playground, the person credited as editor-in-chief of his high school newspaper.

A new name would betray all of that. I also wouldn’t want to spend the rest of my life guessing who’s responsible for all my achievements—the old self or the new one. So we’re staying together, Ramin and I.

In the fourth grade, I remember one substitute teacher who flew through the roll. Toward the end, when she got to my name, she didn’t pause or crinkle her nose. She said it perfectly: Rah-'meen. I think that’s when I knew, deep down, it was going to be okay. You see, I like old sweaters. And my name fits me like one—it’s familiar and comfortable and just the right size.

Ramin Setoodeh, ’04, is an English and communication major from Fresno, Calif.

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