Roll Call

Oranges within Apples by Osman Azami

The below post was originally submitted as a college admissions essay:

I stood on the white line in the gym on the first day of middle school. Roll call began. The 6’3” gym teacher with the whistle around his neck started with the A’s “Adams, Allen, Anderson, Azaaa—” He tried to stress different syllables on that last name, almost as if there were an accent on some letter. Then he rethought and attempted my first name. Before his second butchering could begin, I screamed “here” and corrected the pronunciation of my name with a soft ‘s,’ stressed last syllable in my first name, and a silent second ‘a’ in my last name. Little did my gym teacher care. “Baker” he continued.

For most, there is no sweeter sound than their own name. For me, I dread it and all its various pronunciations. I have grown to fear the abuse of a seemingly simple name and the thought of later correcting someone. Now, I do not consider myself a traditional conservative South Asian with wildly different customs from the American norm. For the most part, I am Neapolitan. I am American. But aside from skin tone and my characteristic small South Asian build, there is one hurdle to full integration into the WASP society that is my school: my name. Of course, I could have changed my name to a very American “James,” or maybe it should bear some resemblance to Osman so I could go by “Oscar”—the 151st most common male first name in America. But, I refused to depart from my identity that much. So, I made the decision that in seventh grade, the year I moved to a new school, I could embrace a dual identity. At home, I would continue to enjoy the proper pronunciation, “Os-mahn.” At school and in public, I would go by “Oz-muh n”—apparently a simpler pronunciation that most already used.

My dual identities became rather convenient—with few notable exceptions—when the spheres of home and public life overlapped. Last summer, at my cousin’s hybrid Muslim and Sikh wedding, I unintentionally introduced myself as “Oz-muh n” to distant yet obviously non-Westernized uncles and aunts. One uncle, wearing his shalwar kameez, appeared somewhat puzzled and asked “Who?” as if the name sounded peculiar to him. I thought to myself, even here, at a wedding where at least 10% of the audience has the first name Muhammad, I would think my name would be somewhat common. Somewhat confused, I repeated my name, and the uncle responded “Ohhhh. Do you mean 'Os-mahn'?”

So, as I grew up in mostly white and affluent Naples, Florida, I slowly grew less insistent about the correct pronunciation of the name of the third caliph of Islam or the Turkish emir. And as I accepted the Anglo-Saxon pronunciation, I became anglicized in more ways than one, largely out of a desire to fit in—and maybe fatigue. “Oz-muh n” represents my western life, as I grow accustomed to the trendy Western clothes, bland food, and pop-music, whereas “Os-mahn” signifies my Eastern home life with the shalwar kameez, samosas, and Shah Rukh Khan movies. When I essentially accepted a name change and heard a distant uncle’s correction, one observation—whether I liked or not—became apparent. I am “Oz-muh n” not “Os-mahn.”

And yet, nothing changed about me with this revelation. As I look back, this process of osmosis began much earlier than I thought. I have found a place for myself in the American quilt—the stitch who feels equally at home attending a wedding in a mosque with the name “Os-mahn” or volunteering at a church-sponsored program with the name “Oz-muh n.” I am the bridge between the two seemingly, yet not quite, disparate cultures. I am after all an American.

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