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As American as Apple Pie. What’s in a name?
Sonam G. Sherpa

My colleagues have also suggested naming my children “American” names. So, I asked what names would be American. To which they suggested names that were derived from Christian and Jewish faiths. Personally, I have a great deal of respect for all faiths of the world, but to call those names American was a bit too much. I made them aware that the names they suggested were of different religious persuasions than my own and they were most definitely not “American”. As America is the land of immigrants, my children’s names are “as American as apple pie,” I politely reminded them.

When my daughter was in the first grade, I volunteered as a parent-chaperone to go along with her class for a trip to the Bronx Zoo. When the children arrived at the zoo, they were whisked away into a classroom, where an instructor told them all about the animals they were going to see that day. She spoke at great length about the animals, reptiles for that day, and then she began to ask questions. The children’s names were all displayed on large index cards hung around their necks, and whoever raised their hand, the instructor would point to and say, “David, do you know the answer?”

There were many questions asked – and I knew for certain that my daughter knew answers to a few of them, as we had discussed some of them in preparation for the class trip. My daughter, even at that young age, was quite an outgoing person and talkative to an extent. To my amazement, she didn’t raise her hand even once to questions that I was certain she knew the answers to.

When the information session was over and we got ready to go view the reptiles, I held her hand and asked her if she didn’t know any of the answers. She said she did. “Then why didn’t you raise your hand to answer?” I asked her. To which, she answered, “Daddy, they can’t say my name right.”

When my son, who is five years younger than my daughter, was old enough to play with other kids in the park, we spent many hours there. He’s the type who would lead other children, some even older than him, to his kind of games. Coming down the slides or on monkey bars, he’s the one, usually, leading the pack. On one of these outings, while he seemed to be quite careless, I shouted his name and told him to be careful. Upon hearing his name, he came running to me. Then to my ear, he whispered, “Daddy, my name is MICHAEL. They (his friends in the park) can’t say my name right.”

As easy as it is for others to pronounce my name, many of my colleagues had asked me if they could call me “Sam”. But, knowing Sam would be a short form of Samuel for males and Samantha for females, in general, I declined their request. Just as it falls upon my shoulders to remember my colleagues’ names, it is their responsibility to remember mine, if they feel it is worthwhile.

My colleagues have also suggested naming my children “American” names. So, I asked what names would be American. To which they suggested names that were derived from Christian and Jewish faiths. Personally, I have a great deal of respect for all faiths of the world, but to call those names American was a bit too much. I made them aware that the names they suggested were of different religious persuasions than my own and they were most definitely not “American”. As America is the land of immigrants, my children’s names are “as American as apple pie,” I politely reminded them.

On separate occasions, both my children have said to me, “I hate my name”. They say people make fun of their names. As a concerned father, I tried to explain them that children are just children. They make fun of any name. I asked them if some of their friends with more common names are also made fun of. Surely, they gave me examples of how other children were made fun of also. After we agreed that children can, when they want, make something up to ridicule any name, not just theirs, I proposed to change their names legally to their desire, if they so wished. I told them that my wife and I gave them their names when they were born based on our cultural background. Now that they are old enough to understand what their special names represent, and they can pick alternate names for themselves, if they desired, and if it would make them happy, I for one was ready to fulfill their wish.

And to my wonderment and pride, they have both declined to change their names. They like their names, they said, as they are unique.

The practice of naming names is different in various part of the world. Some name names that are related to their religion. Some are regional. Some names mean something. Some names are chosen at random.

Most of us from the Himalayan region request a name for our children from a high Lama after the birth of our children. Back home, we would bring the newborns to a Lama and request him to name the child. Lamas are also invited to our own homes for the child’s christening.

In today’s modern world, many of us simply make a telephone call to the Lama. After giving him the necessary details, such as gender, date and time of birth, the Lama speaks the name over the phone and the child is named as such. This telephone call could be made weeks or months after a child is born.

Since many of us are now in western countries, where a name is required for newborns at the hospital as soon as they are delivered, we require their names for them before they are even born. In such circumstances, to play safe, we ask the Lama for two names – a male and a female name. Of course, if one is certain of the gender of the child with the advent of Sonogram and other modern technologies, you ask for just one name.

And many of us name our children on our own. When people ask me who named my children, I jokingly tell them, “Pala Rimpoche”. My daughter is named after both my wife’s and my own mother’s – coincidentally, they shared the same name. My son is named after the Indian guru who brought Buddhism to Tibet. My mother said she had prayed to the guru for us to have a male child. So when her prayers came true, we said why not name our son after him?

So, the names my children have are very special to me. Likewise, any name you name your children has a special meaning. Be it a name you name on your own, from a high Lama, or His Holiness the Dalai Lama. These names signify our background, our religion, our culture, and our tradition that defines each and every one of us. Just because we are in the midst of people who aren’t familiar with these names, it does not mean that we should abandon our culture of naming our own in our own tradition.

Here’s a quiz: Do you know these names and can you pronounce them correctly? George Stephanopoulos, host of "This Week" on Sundays on ABC TV and a former aide to the president Bill Clinton. Michael William Krzyzewski, often referred to as "Coach K", the Basketball Coach at Duke University. Zbigniew Brezinski, former National Security Advisor to the then U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Kweisi Mfume, the former President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Or how about General John M. Shalikashveli, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

If the American people can say the above names, they sure will learn to say ours, if only we reach to the positions where everyone is compelled to know our names. Although very important in relation to one’s background, names are not that important in comparison to the qualities that the name-bearer possesses. In William Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet,” the Bard asked, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”