Last month, I got coffee with my father. We stepped up to order, and I did what I always do when they ask for my name — I gave them a fake one. My dad did what he always does — he gave them a fake one too.
And then we looked at each other and laughed, just out of the sheer ridiculousness of it all — standing in a perfectly normal, incongruous Midwestern Starbucks at 1 p.m. on a Friday, ordering drinks using names that aren’t ours.
My name is Shoham. Sho-hom. It means onyx, like the rock. Like my father’s name, it comes from Hebrew, and like my father’s name, as I’ve discovered, there are about 1,000 different ways to pronounce it in English, none of them quite correct.
A friend asked me recently if it felt like I was denying something about my identity when I didn’t fight for my name. I told him I didn’t know. I don’t remember when I stopped giving my name in situations when I didn’t have to. I come from a family of unpronounceable names, and it’s second nature to me at this point.
When I started college, I began to think about it again. A few weeks after meeting my roommate for the first time, we went out for lunch together. I, as I usually do, gave the person at the register the name Anne, my middle name. My roommate wasn’t really listening, but she caught it out of the corner of her ear and looked at me, both a little confused and distressed.
We’d only known each other for a few weeks, and she, to her credit, is both an incredibly nice person and someone who put genuine effort into learning my name without having to ask. And so I explained, like I’ve done for a long time: It’s my middle name. My real name — Shoham, Sho-hom, s h o h a m — is too complicated to be scrawled on the side of an order or mangled by a Noodles and Co. employee, not worth my energy or time for a five-second interaction across the counter.
A name seems like such a small thing to think about, and it is. But it’s also a lifelong accumulation of hundreds of phone calls with secretaries, moments with friends and encounters with teachers, spelling out my name, explaining how to pronounce my name, getting blank stares at my name, and that isn’t small.
A lot of my favorite moments are tied not to my full name, but to the nicknames people have built out of it over the past 19 years. A series of sports coaches, calling out Sho’am down the field, in the stretch of time before my height advantage and accompanying goalie/basketball stardom faded.
The way people tend to find their way to Shosho, and how it sounds different from each one of them — my best friend at 2 a.m. over the phone every night we spent studying senior year, my little sister when she’s feeling sassy. The group of friends I met over our sleep-deprived Welcome Week freshman year who all call me Sho.
These names come with the person, the relationship, the territory, and I like all (read: most) of them because of that.
But I’ve never specifically offered these substitutes up when people struggle with my name, though I like (almost) all of them. I’ve never gone by Anne full time either, though I thought about it when I started high school, and again when I started college. I don’t fight for my name because it’s so very often not worth it, but I have stuck by it.
When I come home, my parents, native Hebrew speakers both, call me Shoham, sho-hom, s h o h a m. They pronounce it better than I ever have, or probably ever will.
For a long time, that didn’t mean much to me, but then I left for college and it started meaning something more — my name started feeling like home. A home I don’t share with baristas, or Noodles and Co. employees, but something important, something special, my culture and my family, all wrapped up into one.
I joke a lot that should I have kids, I’ll give them shitty (read: similarly unpronounceable) names to build character. And I might. But I’ll do it with the knowledge that although it might take a long time for it to mean something — to come with a relationship, a territory, a person — in the end, it will at the very least mean family.
Even if it’s just family solidarity in lying to Starbucks baristas.