In a sea full of Nathans, who am I?

My name is common, but it means more than I give it credit for.

(K Cox / Daily Trojan)

I knew from a young age that my name was not my own. 

On the first day of kindergarten, I remember a teacher calling out names as she was passing out ID cards that we would use to order lunch. Once I heard “Nathan” called out, I rushed to her, only to find another kid standing in front of her, too. His name was also Nathan.

We got into a bit of a fight. How could he be Nathan, if I’m also Nathan? 

In my life, I’ve known at least seven other Nathans from all walks of life. That day, I realized for the first time how the name is a glove that’s one-size-fits-all, and in different spaces, I could adjust it to match. When I was at school, I was “Nay-then E-lye-us,” or “Nathan E,” since there were so many of us. My last name is my dad’s first name, I would tell people proudly. It’s common with some Ethiopians like me.

At home, I was “Nay-ten,” because in the Amharic language, we sometimes don’t pronounce the “th” sound. We say “E-tio-pia,” not “E-thee-o-pia.” 

I felt like I had won the naming lottery. People rarely got my name wrong at school, and I could assimilate seamlessly into American culture, whereas my brother, mom and dad often heard their names awkwardly filtered through unfamiliar lips. 

Outside of school, I was in touch with my cultural heritage through the Ethiopian grocery stores we would visit when my mom needed ingredients to make injera, the Ethiopian new year celebrations we would attend — which always awkwardly fell around Sept. 11 — and the ever-present Ethiopian Orthodox Christian community, where faith and culture mixed and clashed. 

We were surrounded by Ethiopian culture in our apartment complex back home. You could smell it everywhere you went, the aroma of roasting coffee and onions. You could hear it in the thumping music from the floor above at night, or the low and steady chanting of YouTube church live streams seeping out through the windows on Sunday mornings.  

Still, for the longest time, I had never actually been to Ethiopia. I remember being annoyed at family parties when people would always ask me when I was planning to finally go “back home.” 

“First off,” I would think to myself angrily, “I have no clue. I’m 10, I have no control over that.” And second — the thought always lingered quietly — “How much of a ‘home’ could it be if I’ve never even been?” 

It wasn’t until I finally had the chance to visit Ethiopia for the first time in 2023, soon after I graduated high school, that I realized the perfect world I created to process my identity made no sense.

We stayed at a cozy, two-story rental house across the street from our family friends in Addis Ababa. When we arrived, we saw a floor blanketed with long blades of freshly cut grass — a tradition reserved for special occasions — and enjoyed some of the most delicious injera and shiro I’d ever had. After that much-needed lunch, I went upstairs to my room and lay still in bed, the magnitude of that moment hitting me all at once. 

While I was there, I constantly met new cousins, aunts, uncles and family friends. “Hi, Nah-tan,” they all greeted me. Almost nobody called me “Nay-ten” except for my family; it suddenly felt out of place. Back in the U.S., my friends and family were using the American “Nay” with the Ethiopian “th” sound, capping it off with an American “en.” They got “Nay-ten” out of “Nay-then.” 

When my parents went around reuniting with their old friends, I heard them calling out “Eh-lee-yas! Eh-lee-yas!”

“Of course,” I thought to myself, “that’s how my dad’s name is pronounced. That’s how it’s always been pronounced.” Then I paused to think. “Why wasn’t I pronouncing it that way?”

It wasn’t until months after I got home when I finally considered correcting people about my name. It shocked me how I had relinquished ownership over my name so easily and for so long.

In this identity crisis, I couldn’t find an easy way forward, but in many ways I already had.

It’s why I find myself dipping peanut butter sandwiches in my tea for breakfast — my take on the traditional breakfast of dabo and shai, or bread and tea — or why I keep clicking my tongue in disappointment or pity like my aunts and uncles, even when the meaning was completely lost on my friends at school.  

My life has never been divided neatly into two categories. I’m an awkward, uneven mixture of my influences, and as long as I live, my name will be too. I prefer it that way; at least it’s mine.

“Editors’ Epilogue” is a rotating column featuring a different Daily Trojan editor in each installment writing about their personal experiences. Nathan Elias is a sophomore majoring in journalism and a news editor at the Daily Trojan.

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