Osayi = God creates
Been thinking a lot about identity the past couple of days. As a writer, as a woman, an American. That led me to my name. An examination. A venting session. I’m about to exercise my right to complain. This will be informative and somewhat funny, I promise. I’m not a meanie.
I would estimate that about 90% of the time, when I meet someone new (party, 800-number customer service, work, yoga class), they make a comment about my name. After I do the requisite pronunciation guide (once more for the sharp ones, up to five for the slower folks) I would say most of the time, that comment is actually a question:
“Where are you from?”
I say, “California.” You know, cause that’s where I was born and raised.
They say, usually louder, “No, I mean where are you FROM?”
I’ve grown to have a list of pat answers to this question. currently it’s a blank pause like, what about that did you not understand? sometimes this takes care of it. most of the time it doesn’t.
There is inevitably a foggy gaze that overcomes the speaker as they can’t seem to fathom someone named Osayi would be from the west coast. I finally relent and explain that my dad is from Nigeria and you can literally see the dust settling.
“See!” they exclaim, “I knew there was something international about you!”
I’ve struggled with this over the years. I used to wish I had a “normal” American name like Jen. Then i wouldn’t be expected to give a small family history every time I shook hands with someone for the first time.
Once the country of origin is set, the conversation then predictably turns into an exploration of Nigeria.
“Where did your dad grow up?”
“What language does he speak?”
“What tribe is he from?”
I try to be patient. Lord knows. But really. If my name was Jen, you wouldn’t care about any of those things. So why? Why, when I’m just trying to order a cabernet, or when I’m calling the bank, or when i’m meeting a group of friend’s friends must I go through the bells and whistles? Why? Do you think you’re going to win on Jeopardy now?
I’m sounding like an intolerant asshole, right? All they want is to get to know me, right?
Allow me to entertain you with the common ways people like to get to know me:
Oh so that’s how you learned French.
This is why, I fear, future generations of the US have so little hope. No, having a Nigerian father is not how I learned to speak French. Nigeria was colonized by the British, who despite their ability to sometimes sound like aliens, speak English, not French.
Lots of oil coming from over there.
I heard about the devastation in the Delta.
This is the part where I suddenly remember I left a child in my car.
They have a great soccer team!
You’re of Irish descent, right? Boy, your people make some good potatoes!
So that’s why you have an accent!
Have you heard the way a Nigerian person speaks? They don’t sound like Californians.
And my absolute personal favorite: you mean Niger. There’s no such thing as Nigeria.
At the time of this particular conversation, I was in front of a computer. I silently opened up the Google and pulled up a map of west Africa. The unbridled ignorance of this conversation may have been totally worth it as I watched this man try to recant what he’d just so affirmatively stated to me moments earlier.
I don’t know what else to do other than take it one intro at a time. “People mean well,” my grandma used to tell me.
I know I’m not the only one who goes through this, and I suppose it could be worse. I’m still working on what that is exactly, but I’m sure i’ll come up with something.