His entire family changed their names when they came to America, he said. It’s just easier to pronounce the Americanized names. It’s something they did to fit in. So his real name, Shahram, became Shan.
I sat with that. I related. I wondered what it would have been like growing up if my own immigrant family had all changed our names to assimilate, as well. I thought back to my own complicated history with my given name, which I seriously considered changing to make myself more acceptable starting when I was in elementary school. I looked through books for names I could change myself into “someday when I was older” and entertained the idea of a new American identity. Everyone butchered my name. No one pronounced it correctly except native Spanish speakers. It’s not even that unusual, the Spanish version of Jane, but it was constantly spelled and said incorrectly.
My favorite name and a serious contender for this change of identity was Esmeralda, Emerald, the dancer in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I wrote it and held it in my mind as I considered how changing my name might change me, might change my experience of the world around me. Esmeralda. “Esmeralda! Time for dinner.” I couldn’t see my mother calling me to the table as Esmeralda and felt awkward when I thought about teachers marking me present as an Esmeralda instead of a Juana.
Eventually, around middle school or high school, when people began to tell me, “Oh, that’s pretty” after I told them my name, I began to embrace this oddity, this exotic self I was in a country not made for a Juana.
Juana. “It’s J-U-A-N-A and then you say the J like it’s an H.” I had gotten into the habit of saying this well before my twenties, when my first dance teacher and I stopped for smoothies or tea before class. My teacher, a white American-born California girl, once grabbed me by the shoulders afterwards and said, “She feels compelled to spell her name for everyone,” as if she were apologizing for a misbehaving child. I spell my name for everyone because nobody ever gets it right. It’s so easy, so plain. And yet. In Spanish, everybody and their grandmother has the name “Juana.” It’s like meeting a Jane Smith, Jane Goodman, Jane Watson, Jane, Jane, Jane. But in America, it’s an awkward, uncomfortable name that many still stumble over.
I met Shan-not-Shahram at a dance retreat, a Middle Eastern dance intensive I attended for the first time in 2007, a year after I took my first belly dance-it’s-a-misnomer class. I returned in 2009 and haven’t been back since. That’s the year I met him. I mentioned him to my white belly dance teacher over dinner after I got back home. “He’s very…Americanized,” I told her, using a word for “assimilated” that she introduced me to because I didn’t yet have a concept of what assimilation was. Shan had tattoos and gauged ears, was a little bit metal and a little bit spiritual and I felt entranced by this idea that one could be both those things in one person and not be odd. I was certainly odd. I’d been the weird one all my life, socially shunned because I was too open to everything and didn’t fit in a box.
Shan didn’t seem to mind like it seemed everyone else did.
So when he told me his whole family changed a core part of themselves to fit into mainstream U.S. culture, I thought, “How fascinating. What must that be like? To grow up with this split?”
I too, had a cultural split, though I had never changed my name. I had only distanced myself from a lot of my Mexican identity, so much so that it took until I was well into adulthood to start really unraveling my internalized sense of worthlessness, my internalized racism, that attack against myself.
I suppose I was drawn to Middle Eastern dance because I saw so many parallels between Middle Eastern culture and my own Mexican one, and it felt safer at the time to explore Middle Eastern culture than it did to embrace my own. Though Mexicans exist in huge numbers, our cultural practices aren’t always necessarily up for ownership by us, what with everyone embracing Taco Tuesday, getting drunk for Cinco de Mayo, and making Día de Los Muertos into something it’s not by taking it out of the context of its origins in Indigenous spiritual practice.
Shan understood what it was like to be an “ethnically ambiguous” person. He said to me as we sat in his living room in Los Angeles in 2010, “I’ve been mistaken for Mexican.”
“Really? How interesting.” Of course. Brown people are interchangeable and their cultural origins don’t matter to those outside the culture. Not much, anyway.
What did it mean to be brown in this country? Where did we fit in? Or did we fit in at all? Do you have the answers, Shan? Because I’m confused and I don’t know where home is.
We talked about home. He shared his desire to visit Tehran. I told him I’ve always wanted to live in Mexico for a while. And even though he was not Mexican but Middle Eastern, it felt like being at home.
This pull toward home drew me closer. I wanted what I thought he offered by way of being another brown person in the world navigating racism. I longed for that sense of home, that rootedness I imagined a person must feel when they had this identity thing figured out. I thought he would understand my life since he seemed to be almost a mirror of my own experience as an immigrant child who had only ever known a country not their own. “I got jumped once,” he told me. L.A. is a dangerous place. He’d been questioned about his ethnicity, his racial identity, and I knew he was a safe person to tell my own wounds to. He had them all, too.
I wouldn’t call it love, not really. It felt more like sprouting roots. I suppose I hoped I had found a safe place. I hoped I found someone who understood me in a way I’d rarely been understood, having dated mostly white American-born men with whom I had to hide so much of myself to get along. I hoped I’d found a place to anchor.
We had what felt like these heart-to-hearts I would only have with my best friends. We exchanged insults like children being mean to each other on the playground. He felt like a puzzle piece I didn’t know I had been looking for.
He flirted with me at dinner. Let me have one too many margaritas. And then, like a respectful person, he didn’t push for sex. I was not used to that behavior. I’d actually recently been raped by someone who plied with me alcohol and did as he pleased as I was unable to control my limbs. I did not expect that level of respect from Shan since I so rarely got it from men and growing up a Latina with humongous breasts, it seemed my body was what every man demanded of me. My body was the valuable part. The rest of me, the part that longed for home, was a complete afterthought. So I suppose that was why I felt such a pull toward him. He had the same longing. Was this a place I could call home?
I didn’t get to find out.
I ruined it by drinking too much and being an Orientalist asshole. “Tell me ‘good night’ in Persian,” I pleaded with him while he sat my drunk ass on his couch and told me “good night” in English. (I hope, dear reader, you’re as disgusted with me as I was and just as embarrassed for me as I was for myself, even then. I hope you’re also pissed off at me for not knowing a word of Persian, even though it’s been ten years since I met the man who introduced me to the difference between Arabic and Persian and hinted to me that Iranian and Persian were not interchangeable. I’m still wishing I could go back and erase my stupidity. I can’t blame that on the alcohol, unfortunately.)
Ever full of Persian hospitality, Shan wasn’t too hard on me about being drunk and racist. When I was sober, we talked about Lipstick Jihad, a memoir by an Iranian-born journalist who left Iran as a child. I read it the year I met Shan and liked it because it reminded me so much of my own life, my own longing to go home, to my real home in Mexico, and my own heartache at how corrupt my home country’s government was.
“Is it good?” he asked me as I glanced at his bookshelf.
“Yeah, it was okay.” Then I told him how shocked I was that the journalist’s Persian family told her the first time she was beaten by police in Tehran and was in tears about it, “Get over it. It happens all the time.”
It struck me that we could have such a similar wound and a similar longing though we were so different and came from different places. My ache for Mexico manifested in pronounced jealousy when he told me he had memories of Iran. I had none of Mexico. It was an empty space inside me, this place where home was supposed to be.
I noted that I would probably never go back to Mexico. Because of money and because of the cartels.
He countered with his own reasons on why Iran was off the table. “Why do you want to go there?” he mentioned his family told him when he expressed a desire to visit Tehran. “That place is fucked.” I didn’t say anything. How could I show I understood the pain of the situation? The room was heavy with silence.
I wonder now, who would I have been if I had changed my own name to Esmeralda, something equally exotic yet more popular and easier to pronounce than my actual name? Yet I know the problem is not about names but about heritage. Privilege and oppression, and everything that entails.
Who would he have been had he insisted I call him Shahram and not Shan? It means, “Mighty King,” he told me when we met. He accompanied that translation with a strong royal stance befitting of a mighty King. A mighty King in his mighty Khakis and a long-sleeve plaid shirt. A mighty King dancing with Juana la Mexicana, not Juana la Cubana, cómo la canción, at our little dirty secret of a “band camp.” (It’s not allowed to date a belly dancer if you’re a decent Middle Eastern man. It’s essentially like dating a stripper would be seen in the West, and this, dear reader, I also did not know when I first met Shan. There was so much I did not know.)
I did not know how grossly Orientalist I was and how ignorant I was of the Middle East or how much was missing from my analysis of identity. I did not know there’d be cultural barriers between me and a man who saw me as a slut he’d be ashamed to be seen with as a serious partner although he was fine with fucking me on his couch. I did not know I would feel so seen by a man and also eventually be so angry with him because he, too, seemed to discard me the minute I became a real person and not just a sexual object, just like every other man. I did not know that this would be so complicated.
I did not know that I could feel so close to the peace of home only to have him rip it away from me with a clear rejection when I told him, “I like you as more than just a friend.” I did not know the “Mighty King” would break my heart so. I did not know one person could make me feel so many messy, conflicting things all at once.
Some people say our names hold power, that they determine our personalities and our life’s paths. And sometimes I wonder what my own name contains.
I wonder, who would I be if I did not have this split inside me, this cultural rift that demands to be reconciled and yet, does not come together as a whole? Would it be easier if I had changed my name to Esmeralda? Or better yet, if I’d been born a Jane? Would I feel more rooted if I’d been a Jane Smith instead of a Juana Garcia? Would I have been so broken-hearted when this “mighty king” rejected me if I hadn’t seen a piece of the home I wanted when I looked in the mirror he held up for me?
The past is the past and I don’t seek to change it by writing about it. I only seek to understand. The more I write, the less I feel I understand.
I changed my own name about a year ago. From García to Espinoza. “Yes,” I told myself, “Espinoza. That’s a writer’s name.” I hoped to make a mark with that name, a name that stands out among the sea of Juana Garcías, but it still doesn’t feel genuine. It doesn’t feel like “me.” And in my search for home, I wonder, “What does it take to feel like me?”
If I haven’t found it in a man, or a writing career, or a dance hobby, or a meditation practice, or even in the lullabies I sang my children to sleep with, is it even there at all, the place inside me that feels like home, that feels like me?
If it isn’t there, where is it? Lost? Stolen? Buried? Forgotten? What does it take to remember a place where there’s no information? What does it take to fill up that empty space where home is supposed to be? Would it be any easier if I were a white American-born California girl to feel at peace, at home? Would it be any easier to feel rooted if I had that skin instead of my own brown skin, the skin of a dirty Mexican?