On Ethnic Names: A Reflection by a First Generation Immigrant
Updated: Apr 2
Author: Ece Coşar
Before I even entered the world on a warm May day in the spring of 2002, what I would be called for the rest of my existence had been decided. And when I say “before,” I mean way before: before the pregnancy, before the marriage, even before my parents met. As my mother tells it, she had been set on the idea of having a daughter and naming her so for as long as she could remember. According to all accounts; even back in her teenage years, when she and her friends would fantasize about their futures, she already knew what she would name me: Ece. A surprisingly simple, common name for a Turk; a name you would overhear being spoken multiple times a day in the bustling streets of Istanbul, a name so ordinary that I never quite understood what made my mother feel so strongly about it. I don’t think my mother ever fully understood what drew her to this name either, as she never gave me a specific reasoning for it. Maybe it was as simple as she liked the way Ece sounded, or that it started with an “E” just like her own name, or that its meanings of “queen” and “beautiful woman” were pleasing to her. Or maybe the name had a greater significance for her. Maybe, as common as the name Ece is, she chose it for the uniqueness within the common, as it’s one of the few words derived from pure Turkish still used for naming today. Ece stands out among other common names like Ayse, Fatma, Elif, and Emine that have roots in Arabic — making them names that have existed within our culture for a far shorter amount of time. These names and many others weren’t there from the start, when our ancestors roamed the plane of Mesopotamia as nomads. They didn’t exist back in the days of Tengrism, centuries before Turkic peoples even took the first step of conversion into Islam. Yet Ece has been there since the beginning, has witnessed the entirety of our cultural history and survived to pass it onto us.
The deep-seated significance behind my name never occurred to me before I became an immigrant. As most children with common names likely experience, I never gave much weight to my name while growing up — after all, what’s to be curious about when your name is so widely used? My name’s commonness had consistently been drilled into my brain for 16 long years, solidified as unimportant in my mind each time I heard it in roll call right after another Ece or got called by just my last name whenever a pesky classmate decided to go by Ece too, despite it being their middle name and my lack of any other names to choose from. All of this changed, however, when my family and I relocated to Seattle in the summer of 2018. On my first day in my new high school, something peculiar happened: for the first time in my life, a teacher struggled with my name. “Is it eh-see? ee-see?” my biology teacher asked, squinting his eyes at the list in front of him as if in doubt that the three letters he was seeing could be a legitimate name. “Actually, it’s pronounced like ay-jay” I replied, watching it click in his head that I wasn’t from around here despite my near-flawless American accent and paler-than-most-Middle-Easterners skin. This proved to not be a one-off incident either. Throughout the rest of the day, every single new teacher and classmate I had struggled with the pronunciation of my name. Even after they had all gotten used to it, I had this same experience whenever a substitute teacher was assigned to one of my classes. One bold substitute for my studio art class once even straight-up asked if my parents were trying to send a secret message through my name.
You might naturally assume that it was bothersome for me to have to constantly correct
people about my name, and you would partially be right. Nobody could go repeating the phrase “It’s pronounced ay-jay” multiple times a day, every day, for years without finding it at least somewhat annoying. However, frustration wasn’t the only feeling that came with this new inconvenience: oddly enough, what I felt above all else was a deep sense of joy and pride. No longer was I trapped by the mundanity of my name, or subjected to hearing it used in reference to different people on a daily basis. For the first time in my life my name was special, something people used in reference to me and me alone. My name became one of the few articles of my identity that distinguished me from my peers, that kept me connected to a now faraway culture as I assimilated into American society.
As most first generation immigrants will likely tell you, one of the hardest things about leaving your homeland to settle elsewhere is the process of reconciling your cultural background with the unfamiliar Western society you find yourself in, as it becomes apparent very quickly that you were raised on wildly different values than your new peers. The cultural identity you were once undeniably proud of shifts in your eyes, seeming more and more like a wall blocking you from rebuilding your life each passing day. Consequently, you begin to make sacrifices: to make friends, you shift your demeanor to match theirs; for people to stop staring at you in the street, you change your clothing; and to seem less like a foreign “threat,” you start using your native tongue less and less. With each change, it feels as if you’re leaving your cultural roots and, by association, your entire family history behind for your own selfish desire to conform. The only thing you can do is hang onto the small things, like a name, to keep you and your ancestors’ very pasts from vanishing right in front of your eyes.
And so I began brandishing my name with pride; making it a point to specify its spelling even in the least significant moments of life, like putting in an order at Starbucks. Each time I did so seemed like a small victory, like I was declaring “This is who I am, where I came from; where my roots lead to, stretched out over 6,000 miles of land and ocean. My name is a testament to the long journey I completed to be standing here today, as a minority who has found success in a foreign society designed to put me at a disadvantage; to who I am at my very core: a persistent force that triumphs through thick and thin; that stands on top of everything, victorious — not unlike a monarch, a queen. Almost as if my mother knew all this before she even laid eyes on me for the first time, naming my future right then and there.”