How I Learned to Love My Name

My name is Sarah Alma Khan — pronounced SAH-rah AHL-ma KH-an — and for the first 26 years of my life I hated it. Now, at 32, I think it’s one of the coolest names ever.

I’m named Sarah because my practising-Muslim mother wanted a Qur'anic name (Sarah was the first wife of Prophet Ibrahim) and my agnostic father wanted a name that wouldn’t be butchered in other languages (like his name often was).

I’m named Alma because, when filling out forms at the hospital when I was born, my father misspelled “Elma,” which is what my middle name was supposed to be. Elma is a Muslim name that means “apple,” though it’s German meaning is “God’s protection.” Alma is a Hebrew word meaning a childless woman of child-bearing age, but it’s also the Spanish word for “soul" (or "spirit").

Khan was initially used as a military title by the Mongolians living north of China and means “king” (or "ruler," "commander," "leader," "chief"). Today, it's one of the most common surnames in the world; I like to joke that it's the Asian equivalent of "Smith," though Khan is clearly much cooler (no offence, Smiths!).

Knowing all that, Sarah Alma Khan is a pretty spectacular name, you have to admit, but for most of my life I hated everything except my first name. The reason is shockingly simple: because Sarah can be mistaken for a “white” name while Alma and Khan are undeniably “ethnic.” It should come as no surprise that I, a woman born in a developing country and growing up predominantly in a “white” Western country, was so eager to shed any sign of my brownness.

At one point in my life — and at the height of my ingrained racism dictating my life — I was eager to marry a white guy so I could take on his surname and thus truly shed my non-whiteness in name if not in skin. At another point, I considered just dropping all my names except Sarah and going through life with a solo moniker like Madonna or Cher. At still another point, I very seriously workshopped dozens of potential new names that I could legally change mine to, and if not legally than at least professionally. I put an absurd amount of time obsessing about the colour of my name — I couldn’t make my skin whiter, but I sure as hell could make my name white.

To be perfectly honest (and this is kinda embarrassing to admit), I didn’t actually know my middle name till I was close to graduating from high school. Up until then, I believed my middle name was the same as that of my dad, mum and brother: Ali.

Initially my dad’s middle name, my mum (in a rare instance of succumbing to archaic tradition) took on his middle and last names. My brother, being the son, took on my dad’s middle and last name as well. I thought I had been gifted the same masculine name (Ali is not short for Alison in South Asia, it's a stand-alone name predominantly for masculine folk) until I happened to mention it to my mum and she revealed not only my middle name but also the kinda-adorable story of how I mistakenly got it.

I hated Alma even more than I’ve ever hated a name. I thought it was “fat” (what does that even mean? Maybe I thought it was a "fat girl's name" or maybe all those A's just make it look chunky and my fatphobic privileged-to-have-been-a-scrawny-child self couldn't stand a "fat" name?) and just the ugliest name ever. All those A’s and a big ole M and the random L; this wasn’t a name, this was just an ugly mess of letters parading around as a name. I loathed it. Compared to Alma, Sarah Khan didn’t seem as bad. And thus began my journey to try to find a new middle name.

This search, unlike the one to find a new surname, was half-hearted at best. The fatigue of fighting who I inherently was was catching up to me. It didn’t feel like a worthwhile fight to fight, so I decided that I’d just tell everyone that I had no middle name at all. I pretended I was just Sarah Khan for nearly a decade, during which time I genuinely learned to love those two names.

Sarah I've always thought was just a very pretty name (until you drop the H and then it's a crime against forenames), and as I grew older and got more into literature and pop culture, I realised that I ought to love the name Khan because it was bad ass. “Khan, like the wrath of, or Genghis or Kublai, or Chaka, if that’s your jam” became a throwaway line for me when introducing myself (since the release of Star Trek: Into Darkness, I’ve shortened that spiel to just “Khan, like the wrath of.”)

Sarah Khan became a name I vowed to never surrender, not even in marriage. I thought I’d maybe hyphenate if I got married, and let my kids take their dad’s name. Then, when my inner feminist began tearing down the walls of the room I had kept her in, I decided I wouldn’t take my husband’s name at all. I vowed to be Sarah Khan till I died. I still figured my kids would take their dad’s name or — and I was leaning towards this more and more — have hyphenated names.

But I still absolutely hated the name Alma. That is, I did until I decided to learn Spanish in earnest in my early 20s and somewhere in the two years I dedicated to becoming fluent in Spanish, I discovered that “alma” is the Spanish word for “soul” (or “spirit,” but I prefer the romance of “soul”).

All of a sudden, my name — these thirteen letters that I had been so embarrassed by — became beautiful. And the more spiritual I became and the more I recognized the hard work my poor soul puts in daily to keep me spiritually balanced, the more that whole name became the perfect embodiment of who I felt I was as a person.

I suddenly couldn’t — and still can’t — imagine having any other name than Sarah Alma Khan. And the more comfortable I get with myself and the world outside the bubble in which I grew up, the more I love my name — this name that my Anglo-obsessed father gave me because he thought it wouldn’t be butchered in any language but was, ironically, only butchered in English — sounded beautiful in every language. I cannot express the thrill I felt the first time I went to Italy (a 20-day graduation present to myself that I was only able to afford by working my part-time retail job nonstop for a year) and the people at my hostel called me SAH-rah rather than SAY-ra. I cannot express the thrill when one of the hostel workers told me his daughter was also named Sarah (SAH-rah, not SAY-ra!). And I get a special thrill whenever I visit Spain and introduce myself as SAH-rah (“Sarah con ‘h’” to be exact since Sarah sin “h” is the norm in Spanish-speaking countries).

Since the time I vowed to take on my future husband’s name and give my potential kids their father’s surname, I've indulged in permanent contraception and vowed to remain unmarried and childless for life. I literally live my life in a way in which I will remain Sarah Alma Khan till I die. Even after that, if any of my writing survives.

Though I’m happily childless and have no desire to be a parent, I sometimes selfishly fantasize about adopting a little girl child whom I can mould to be an unapologetic feminist badass like I hope I am. And I’ve cemented the idea that, though her first name matters less to me, her middle and last names will, without a doubt, be Alma Khan. In polar contrast to my feelings as a teen, I now wish my name would carry on — that my daughter and her daughter and her daughter’s daughter will all be Alma Khan, or at least Alma. Parenthood is too serious a commitment, though, and wanting my once-hated-now-beloved name to live on is a weak reason to embark on that commitment.

But it doesn’t really matter, because by owning my name — and by slowly working to refuse it being bastardized and butchered by the English-speaking west — I’m making a small feminist stand that says “I refuse to let you shame me for who I am. I refuse to conform to white supremacy any longer. I refuse to dim my light to make you comfortable.”