Written in the early 2000s I’ve published this not only because it’s still very true, relevant and tells you quite a bit about who I am (and how to pronounce my name), but also because I want readers to consider what’s sacrificed when we urge people to believe in a idea of safety or self confidence that, in my opinion, is shallow at best and harmful at worst.
Recently there has been a lot of attention toward celebrities and the unusual names they’ve chosen for their children like; ‘Apple’ or ‘Rumor’, or spelling variations like ‘Phinnaeus’ for an already uncommon ‘Phineas’. People have responded with scrutiny and confusion; “What was she thinking?” or with accusation; “I can’t believe anyone would do that to their kid!” They are convinced that the selfish parent has marked the child in an irreparable way that will reverberate through adolescence right into adulthood.
In my trendy Manhattan neighborhood, I recently overheard a man say to a woman walking beside him “It’s irresponsible to give a girl a name like Apple. Children are cruel and her whole life she’d have to deal with – you know – like “Hey, Apple! Wanna apple? Why do it? How will the kid live with that?”
Perhaps I should have stopped and answered his questions. My name is Ooana. It is pronounced, “wanna” – you know – like “Ooana, wanna apple?”
Why did my parents do this? My Hungarian born mother immigrated to the United States via Romania and married my father, an American. Five years later, I came along. She’s explained (with a tone of delight that would rival a four-year old-girl talking about how she chose the name for her most favorite doll) how she first read the name in a poem, that it’s an ancient Dacian Princess’s name and that she always knew she wanted a daughter named Ooana. She’ll also insist that the original (rarely used even in Romania today) spelling with two O’s rather than with one (Oana) “is prettier and more elegant.”
Suddenly Phinnaeus doesn’t seem so bad, eh?
How did I live with it? My father’s mother did not-too-gently advise that the name “Ooana” would be a poor choice. She suggested her mother’s name – Katherine. Throughout my childhood I’ve memories of my grandmother’s regretful gaze and sighs of, “You really would have made a lovely Katie.”
It was Juliet who asked “what’s in a name,” and decided that ultimately it didn’t matter. My name did and it does: I’d been teased and made to feel self-conscious. It was difficult, hurtful and cruel. My name has always posed challenges. But my name also has been the real inspiration to honestly examine myself, become an arbiter of my own destiny and in the spirit of Emerson, strive to be truly self-reliant.
There’s a point when some are confronted with their eccentricities and recognize them, not merely as challenges to overcome or to be bridled by, but as traits and qualities that make up a unique and broad potential. For me, that recognition began when I stopped worrying that I had a funny-sounding name that marked me as a target for people’s unkindness. Instead I decided to see it as a mark of distinction. It is my responsibility and good fortune to live up to it. And that simply has made all the difference.
It may be simple, but it wasn’t easy. I did have to overcome any sense of insecurity or loneliness that came with childhood teasing. I did have to compare myself and decide what it meant – to me – that unlike my classmates I didn’t require or receive a clever knick-name. From the first day of roll call I stood out and there was no way to avoid it. So I had to relish it.
I’ve never been one of five or three or even two people with the same name. I’ve never needed tricks or numbers, middle or last names, or adjectives like “Little Katie and Tall Katie” to distinguish me. I’ve always stood out, often alone and sometimes feeling naked in a room full of eyes. Yes, it is daunting. But also, it gave me the inklings of insight that; having ultimate say in the kind of person or image I reflect and am therefore defined by is immensely powerful.
Using patience and creativity when challenged by someone or something that can’t be controlled is another element of self-awareness. Unlike Katherine, my name isn’t easy for people at first read. It isn’t always easy when first heard. My name can’t be changed or shortened like “Katie, Kath, or Kat.” It doesn’t carry with it any helpful references or tricks that allow people to catch on quickly to what my name “must be.” Therefore, people have used a variety of names they’ve assumed to be mine because their experience has defined “what does and does not make a word an appropriate name.” Some think of Charlie Chaplin’s wife, Oona and others recall the similar sounding, Juana. They insist that it must actually be one of these. I’ve seen people argue about it, forgetting I’m even there. Other times, I’ve had someone think they are the brunt of my joke saying with more than a hint of sarcasm “Yeah right, like, ya wanna?”
I actually have used that joke – to help someone remember or understand my name. “Its Ooana, like I wanna know your name.” So, I enjoy seeing the variety of reactions my name gets. It isn’t tedious or inconvenient. Meeting new people or approaching a stranger I do with confidence because I always have a conversation starter. And sometimes, someone will simply say; “I’ve never heard that name before, that’s wonderful.” How could I be fearful of introducing myself? There’s always that chance that my first conversation with someone begins with a compliment; even if I’m having a really terrible hair day.
I’ve had to embrace something about myself that others find challenging and learn how to help others overcome the challenge. I do it every day. This lead me to reflect on how else I effect and impact the world and if I both react and act on what I discover. Intellectually, academically, personally, creatively and socially this act of reflection is invaluable.
Yes, being named Ooana is sometimes uncomfortable. That discomfort is what spurred the desire for skills that gave me and later strengthened my ability or opportunity to be flexible during, ultimately overcome, or grow more at ease in the midst of any feelings of discomfort. It required a more keen awareness of my instincts. So next I began to understand that I could successfully live a life that challenged my abilities. I can pursue what really gets me motivated. And I’m free to adjust if those ambitions that resonate deepest within me change their tones.
Would these lessons have come were I named Katherine? There’s no way to know. What I do know is that no one looks at me anymore with concern regarding living with the name my parents gave me. My father acknowledges that naming a daughter Ooana gave him some reservations and has said “I knew you’d have to live up to your name.”
He was right. Everyone should be so lucky.