Everything about my life in my twenties so far has been about self-discovery. The endless nights I’ve had questioning myself over and over (“Who am I? Do I like who I am? Who do I want to be?”) have inevitably resulted in an obsessive analysis of my name. Do you do that too? Have you ever spent an absurd amount of time just wondering about it? I mean―your name has just been given to you, chosen by someone else, and usually it’s not because of the newborn you were at the time, but what your name givers had hoped you’d grow up to be. Given that it was just assigned to you, do you feel like your name fits you now that you’re older and an actual person of your own? Some names have histories and meanings―do they ring true for you? And some have namesakes and legacies―do you feel like you’ve lived up to them? When someone calls it out, can the deepest, darkest recesses of your heart honestly answer that that’s you?
I know that it’s just a name. Like all labels, it doesn’t define you. But, it’s your name: You wear it. You bear it. As Rick Riordan ominously wrote in his first Percy Jackson book, “Names have power.”
I think this is especially intriguing for me because, as you know, my given name is different from what people call me. On paper, I’m Farshana. Far-SHA-na. Sometimes shortened to Farsh or Farshi, especially if you became a friend of mine ten years ago. I admit I have Googled my name once or twice, but never extensively, because I knew it was pointless. As much as I would like to romanticize it all, my names don’t actually have meanings behind them. The name choice Farshana wasn’t inspired by anything other than the desire to keep my name coordinated with my siblings’ (we all have names starting with F because my mom’s name is Fatima). My dad apparently wanted a certain name for me, and my mom added the odd letter to make it more phonetically unique. And so ends the non-story behind my name.
There is also the mystery of my nonexistent middle name―all my siblings have second names, except for me. I’m the third child of four, and the second of two girls, no way special. I find it weird that they skipped giving me a middle name. But again, there was no given reason behind this. Would I have wanted a second name? Sure. It always felt missing to me.
It’s sad, in a way, not to have anything to glean from your name besides its uniqueness. It would have been more fun to scrutinize the shit out of my name if it had a meaning, like, Farshana means raincloud in French, or something like that, and then I’d be able to try to match it up with my personality. But alas, my name has no dictionary entry, and will always have that red squiggly line under it when you type it on a document.
I have been told once or twice that my name’s beautiful, though. I don’t necessarily disagree with that. There was a time last year when my mom and I were shopping for some stuff for our kitchen, and I saw this stack of boxes containing collections of glassware. Each collection had a name, printed in Monotype Corsiva-esque script on the boxes―Esmeralda. Jasmine. Gabriella. I pointed them out to my mom. “Ma, look. You’ll never see my name on a box like that.” She laughed. I said it with smugness, you see. I’ll never have the chance to see my name’s apparent beauty being used for commercial and/or popular purposes, but make no mistake―I’m happy I have a name that’s not in the books.
I guess it’s just that, a) I could never really take credit for it, since I didn’t name myself, and b) I don’t exactly feel like a Farshana.
There is this Sarah Dessen book, What Happened to Goodbye, that I read back in 2013. It wasn’t the greatest of coming-of-age books, but I remember it because the protagonist kept reinventing herself with each new school she transferred to, starting with a different takeaway of the same name―Beth, Lizbeth, Eliza―and building a new girl with a new personality from that. I didn’t believe it at the time; my review of it was quite snarky, even: As if something as trivial as names could hold that much power over who you are as a person.
I see now what Dessen must have meant. It’s not that the name holds the power, or that the name influences your personality. It’s that, it is possible that your name can fit nicely with who you are as a person. In the same way, a name could altogether not feel like you, too, at least not entirely. Sometimes it could represent just facets of you. Farshana feels familiar to me, but not completely me―does that make sense? She feels like a girl only on paper: on forms and certificates and IDs and diplomas and letters and mail and formal literature. And the occasional instance when a figure of authority would bellow, Farshana! and I’d go, “Welp, that’s me.”
My darling nickname also doesn’t have much of a story, either: Once upon a time, my wonderful mother had high hopes for her bright little second daughter, and decided to give her the nickname Sunshine. I still find old children’s books that have Sunshine scribbled on them in my messy preschool scrawl. It actually happened.
Unfortunately for my mother, I (allegedly―I’ll never know because I don’t remember, and in fact no one really remembers this clearly) decided that I would rather be called Nenen. And somehow, unbelievably, everyone did as I (allegedly) said. I don’t know what age I was when it happened; by the time I could remember things, between five and seven years, I was already Nenen. It stuck.
(Imagine if I remained a Sunshine, though! What a light-bringing name to live up to. I have grown up to become more of a Raincloud, to be completely honest.)
I like to think I was five, and adorably stubborn, when the Nenen thing happened. To be that young and yet make all the grown-ups call me the name I chose for myself―instead of the perfectly normal-sounding name Sunshine―isn’t that ridiculously amazing? I wish I could remember what must’ve have popped in my head. Let’s be honest: there is Nene, and there is Neneng―both super common household names here in the Philippines. But Nenen is a bit unheard of. How does a hypothetically five-year-old little girl go from writing Farshana and Sunshine in her story books to naming herself Nenen?
One time, a friend of mine actually told me my name doesn’t suit me. He was one of my classmates during junior year in college, but he said he’d known about me the year before. “I heard that name first, Nenen. And then later on I learned that that was you. I was surprised because hindi bagay! You don’t look like a Nenen.”
“What do I look like?”
“You look like a…” Long, thoughtful pause. “Janine.”
He said this totally straight-faced, mind you, but I cracked up instantly. That still remains one of the funniest, oddest things anyone’s ever said to me. He probably does not remember that anymore, but I do; I wrote it in my journal that very night.
I suspect, though, that it’s not in the name Janine, but in the name Nenen―it sounds unorthodox, and maybe a bit unattractive, too. I think I look far from unorthodox. I’m certainly not attractive, but I guess I’m not totally ugly, either: I am a plain girl. Not boyish, but not a girly-girl either; I look like a sensible plain girl. Always in sensible jeans and sensible tops and sensible flats. Hair tie on my right wrist, watch on my left, spectacles on my nose, retainers on my teeth. Next-to-no-make-up, hopelessly frizzy hair. Resting bitch-face. Altogether forgettable. A plain Jane―Janine. But not a Nenen.
I feel like a Nenen now, though.
I used to be ashamed of my nickname back in elementary school, back when I was still Farsh to the rest of the world, and only Nenen to my family. But I got tired of the distinction between school me and home me. When it came down to it, I just wanted one nickname. So I still remember the day it all changed, the time I thought that there’s nothing to be embarrassed about, the introductions during that first day of high school when I first said the words, “My name is Farshana, but you can call me Nenen.” I imagine that I must have said it with the same conviction I had the day I coined my nickname back when I was a little girl.
So I guess Nenen isn’t a pretty name, and it doesn’t have any history to it at all, no meaning behind it, but what I love the most about it is that I chose it. Even though I don’t remember why, I like the idea that I took matters into my own hands, and that, in fairness to my tiny young brain, I chose something unique, something different, something no one I know has ever been called, something so hilariously far from my birth name. Weird as it is, everybody eventually accepted it. Now, it has diversified into even shorter and more affectionate monickers from my friends―Nen, Nens, Nini.
Not only that, after 21 years of pure chaos, it has morphed into who I am, transformed into an accurate representation of me, all of me: highlight reel and behind-the-scenes, and girls on paper, and secret selves in journals, and things screamed, and things whispered, and things left unsaid, and she who is known by everyone, and she who is known by no one, and everything in between. It feels like me more than any other name out there. Farshana is contained inside Nenen, and I am so, so proud of it.
So maybe the story about my name isn’t what it means, which is nothing, but of how it came to be, of that little girl claiming it.
Maybe my naming also set a precedent for things to come. I am slowly believing I am not meant to follow footsteps, that I am odd, and I like being odd. That I tend to cringe away from popular opinion, and I derive pleasure from being apart from the masses. Well I’m not very daring, no, I’m too goody-goody for that. But at 21, I can now recognize that I have an itch. An itch that says, I’m different. An itch that will always choose to be a Nenen even when someone else has already told her she was a Sunshine. I tried to ignore that itch for years, but itches refuse to be ignored.
Whenever I am face with touch choices, I always hope that I can make a decision with the same conviction as my little self who already had a beautiful given name, and another beautiful, sunny nickname, but (I like to imagine) so bravely and stubbornly went, “Call me Nenen. That is who I am. Deal with it.”
No one can predict the future, I know that, but thinking of that little smartass acting like she knew what she was doing―like she knew that some sixteen or so years later the name would fit her so snugly, like a nice, warm hug when there wouldn’t be anyone to give her one after the longest and darkest of days… Well. She wasn’t wrong, was she? I now believe that some things might not seem sensible at the time, but when you know, you know.
I also know that it may be difficult to start loving yourself, but you can always start by loving your name.
Nenen Datukon is a 23-year-old registered medical technologist currently majoring in Computer Science at Ateneo de Davao University. She spends most of the year in Davao but considers Cotabato City her home. She has been writing daily on journals since 2011, but hopes no one ever unearths them when she dies. Her real name is Farshana, but she’d rather you not call her that.