When I was about nine years old, my aunt came to visit us from India. As usual, she brought an assortment of gifts—boxes of exotic sweets, clothes, handbags and bangles for my mother. She gave me a silver identity bracelet—very popular for boys in the mid-1980s (thanks, Miami Vice).
The engraving on the bracelet read, AKASH. “What’s that?” I asked my aunt.
“That’s your name,” she replied.
“No, it’s not,” I said dismissively.
“Of course it is,” she insisted. “Your name is Akash. It means the sky.” I shot her my what-you-talking-’bout-Willis look, and then turned to my parents for backup.
“She means in India my name is, Akash, but here it’s Skye. Right?” I asked.
“No,” my dad said, “She’s right. Your name really is Akash. We’ve always called you, Skye, because that’s what your name means.”
I was shocked. When were my parents going to tell me? And what other secrets were they keeping from me? Wait a minute…how could I be sure they really were my parents? How far did the deception go?
In my undeveloped brain, this revelation was earthshaking. It completely altered my mental map of the cosmos in the same way that learning Darth Vader was Luke’s father and professional wrestling was fake did. Up was down. Down was up. Skye was Akash. Akash was Skye.
I might have felt differently if I had been told my name was really David or Brian—something “normal.” I hated the name Skye because, like most kids, I wanted nothing more than to fit in. Akash, however, was an aggressive move in the wrong direction. Skye made me odd; Akash made me other.
Like my comic book heroes, I decided to keep my real identity a secret. Not to protect my loved ones, but to protect myself. The last thing I needed was another reason to be teased by the armies of Davids and Brians at school, so I kept the bracelet hidden in a box in my bedroom.
By the time I was in high school, and my adolescent insecurities began to slowly recede, I realized that I didn’t have to be Skye, or Akash, or anything else my parents said I should be. My identity could shift. Although I was still known by my nickname, I started quietly contemplating a change. My older brother had gone away to college and shed his childhood nickname in favor of his Hindi name. I admired him for it. He seemed to be saying, “Screw the Davids and Brians!” The same impulse was awakening in me.
After graduation, I wondered if I should start using my Hindi name. After all, if the culture saw me as other, why not disarm them by embracing the fact? I also considered using my English middle name, Charles. It belonged to my Scandinavian maternal grandfather, and it was certainly more user-friendly than either Skye or Akash. Would using Charles be a denial of my Indian heritage? Would it be a cowardly surrender to the Davids and Brians; a final desperate attempt to fit in? I even considered just going by my initials, A.C. (That option was ruined for me by a character on Saved by the Bell—the prototype for all future irritating and poorly acted Disney Channel shows.)
Looking back on that season, it is clear to me now that I had fully absorbed the American message that identity is a matter of individual choice. Like so many other teens, I was engaged in a process of self-differentiation from my parents and peers. I wanted to construct my own identity independent of everyone else, and the name I chose became a symbol of my identity to display to the world—like the hood ornament on a car or the logo on a pair of gym shoes. My name was about me and no one else.
Being a self-absorbed teenager, and believing identity was a matter of individual choice, it never occurred to me to ask my parents why they had given me the name Akash. Before leaving for college, however, I learned the story from my mother and it changed everything.
My older brother was born in India when my father was a medical student. His mother, my father’s first wife, died from cancer when he was still an infant. So, when my parents married a few years later in Chicago, my American mother legally adopted my Indian brother. Language like “stepmother” and “half-brother” was never used in our home, so I didn’t learn this bit of history—along with my real name—until I was older. I honestly thought my brother’s darker skin was the natural result of drinking Hershey’s chocolate syrup straight from the can, which he frequently did. Thankfully, his addiction was treated before he started snorting cocoa powder.
When I finally came along, my older brother was already four years old. My mother said she had wanted to give me an English name, but out of love for her adopted son, and not wanting him to feel different as the only kid in the family with a Hindi name, she decided to give me a Hindi name as well.
When she told me that backstory, I suddenly realized that my name wasn’t about me at all. It was a gesture of love from my mother to my brother. “Akash” was never meant to represent me. The name represented something good and beautiful about my family. That discovery also revealed how misguided the cultural messages I had absorbed truly were. Identity isn’t something each individual chooses. I am not an isolated, autonomous creature on a solitary journey of self-actualization, and my name isn’t a brand I display merely to represent myself. We are, to use David Brooks’ term, social animals.
We come from communities—from families—and our identities are inexorably connected to the people who love and nurture us. The hyper-individualism of American culture is a recent development that actively tries to deny this experienced reality. It tells us to throw off whatever identity our parents, family, community, or society has bestowed on us. Hide it in a box in your childhood bedroom, and engage the world with the identity you, not your family, prefers.
Our culture tells us to construct our own identity based on whatever desires or preferences we find appealing at the moment—desires and preferences that were likely birthed in a corporate marketing department or a writers’ room in Hollywood. Become a David or Brian. Become a Charles, Akash, or A.C. Become whatever you want, and don’t let anyone tell you it’s wrong. You be you, and to hell with what anyone else thinks.Our refusal to accept any notion of inherited identity explains much of the confusion we are witnessing today. Old ideas are rejected simply because they are old. New ideas are embraced simply because they are new. Like a self-absorbed teenager, our culture has no capacity to reflect upon or value the heritage that nurtured it into existence. We have forsaken our roots. We have forgotten our name.
Obviously, I never changed my name. The temptation to do so departed long ago. I still use the nickname I’ve been called since birth. (Although, I’ll be honest, the unnecessary -e at the end of my name kinda bugs me sometimes.) My driver’s license and passport still say Akash Charles Jethani, and that odd name reminds me of a fact our culture refuses to accept: Identity isn’t something we choose. It is something we receive.
Check out part 2 of this discussion here.