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Here’s to Mahershala, Yulree, Uzoamaka, and all our ‘not a name’ names

By Sinem Bilen-Onabanjo
04 March 2017   |   4:17 am
The beauty of being multi-cultural is that you get to experience a multitude of cultures in one lifetime, you get to interact with a multitude of people you may not have otherwise crossed paths with,....

Afroyinbo Mahershala Ali

The beauty of being multi-cultural is that you get to experience a multitude of cultures in one lifetime, you get to interact with a multitude of people you may not have otherwise crossed paths with, you get to have a plethora of cultural references not readily available to the mono-cultured.

For instance, I can within the span of a minute reference to the Turkish Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk and the Nigerian Nobel Laureate Chinua Achebe. I can within seconds imagine the taste of hot off the oven baklava and freshly fried puf puf.

If I close my eyes and push the limits of my imagination hard enough, I can just about conjure up the streets of Istanbul, the screams of the seagulls over the Bosphorus, the chime of the tea glasses on the tea boy’s tray, the haughty gaze of the stray cat on the seafront, the smell of roasted chestnut wafting from the street seller’s cart across the road, the all-day bustle of Kadikoy as crowds come and go.

Likewise, if I close my eyes and will my heart long enough, I can hear the din of traffic on Ozumba Mbadiwe, the unrelenting gaze of the street hawker trying to catch your eye, his stock of goods plastered across your car window, the smell of freshly grilled suya on Glover Court, the caress of the balmy evening breeze that cools the suffocating stickiness of the Lagos heat.

The challenge of being multi-cultural is that most of these experiences are beyond the imagination of Jane, Katie, John and James, along with names such as Uzoamaka, Oluwatunsayofunmi, or Mahershala – as was Jimmy’s case last week during the Academy Awards.

The host of the night came under fire after he made an ill-informed joke about Mahershala Ali’s name as the actor nabbed the first Oscar of the night for Best Supporting Actor in Moonlight.

Following the 43-year-old actor’s acceptance speech where he sweetly paid tribute to his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, who recently gave birth to their first child, Kimmel wondered aloud it must have been difficult to choose a moniker for his daughter since his name is Mahershala.

“You can’t name her Amy,” Kimmel joked.
Mahershala Ali rose above it graciously as he had done previously when Kimmel made a similar joke just last month the actor appeared on “Jimmy Kimmel Live”.

Kimmel wasn’t done there, either. As part of a prank on a tourist group who had expected to be taking a tour of Hollywood but found themselves a part of the show, interviewing an Asian American woman named Yulree (“It rhymes with jewellery” she said helpfully), Kimmel’s reaction was, “What kind of a name is that?” followed by “See, that’s a name” in response to her husband whose name was Patrick. The implication? Any name other than Patrick, James, Amy – any name beyond the North-West axis of the Euro-centric globe – is different, hence not acceptable.

Jimmy is not alone in his ignorance though. At the 2015 Emmys, presenter Jamie Lee Curtis joked about not being able to pronounce Orange is the New Black star Uzo Aduba’s name. Amaka of course once told The Improper Bostonian her mom once said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

Yet, we the multi-cultured and our names are often at the mercy of the mono-cultured Jameses and Jamies who can say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky impeccably, but inexplicably stumble at the mere sight of Mahershala, Uzoamaka or N’yongo. It’s not just a Hollywood disease either – think of all the Uzoamakas who became Zee, all the Offiongs who were made Fifi, Jaiyesimis who turned into Jays?

I recall, in another lifetime, teaching in a majority white British school, I saw the name of a Nigerian student on my roll call – a beautiful name I took care to pronounce just the right way. She looked at me, mortified, and swiftly went on, sounding almost hurt by the foreignness of her name I had amplified, “Please, Miss, it is Jade” pronouncing her name like the very British Jade.

Relatively a simpler, shorter name, supposedly not too foreign for the Western ears, I can’t even begin to recall the times I had my first name butchered. “Sina?” “Sien?” “Sim?” queries often ending with a pleading “Can I just call you Sin?” The most embarrassing to date, quite inebriated British guy making small talk at a bus stop in London and shouting out for anyone within hearing distance, “Guys, she said her name is Semen” to which I had the master Mahershala Ali’s composure to respond with, “No, I am not named after a bodily fluid.”

After years of relenting and accepting “Sin”, “Sinnie” or whatever other alternative was easier on the Western tongue, it was in my thirties I finally embraced by name in all its otherness, put my foot down, and said, “No, you cannot call me Sin; the name is Sinem, as in sin in ‘sin’, and ‘em in ‘them’; get with it.”

For long, I had wondered at my husband’s insistence that, our kids, when we have them, must have either Yoruba or Turkish names or both. Why would you burden them with a foreign name in a country where it was reported only last month people with ‘Muslim-sounding’ names are three times less likely to get job interviews? Now, I understand that in a world populated by the inoffensive Amys and Patricks, it is essential for us, the ‘others’ to embrace our different names as part of our rich culture.

Still, I am not mad at Jimmy, or Jamie, or any other mono-cultured, bi-syllabic named person who fails at the first sight of a foreign looking, foreign sounding, ‘not a name’ name. We may have the burden of tongue twisters for names; they are burdened for life with the one-dimensional world where a foreign clime is not just a dream away, a foreign names stumbling blocks, where they boast names like James, Patrick, Amy, bi-syllabic, one-dimensional signifiers of zero understanding beyond the scope of their own West-centric experience.