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I stopped anglicizing my name more than 10 years ago, yet I’m still haunted by it

By Ahmed Sharma | Staff Writer & South Asian American Advisory Board Chair

My 29th birthday passed recently. It was on a Tuesday and so many people had canceled, so naturally, I was surprised to see the turnout be as big as it was. My guests were a mix of coworkers and friends, old and new. When it came time to sing “Happy Birthday,” I noticed that a few of my old friends—some who were like family—didn’t know what name to sing because, for a very long time, they didn’t address me by my first name. 

I wouldn’t say I had an identity crisis. Still, the different monikers I’m referred to might suggest otherwise. Part of it had to do with trying to find a way around the question only those with a foreign name are asked: “What kind of name is that?” Little did I know, I’d still find myself in that position and resent myself for letting it go on longer than it should have. 

When I was 8 years old, I found out a man I affectionately called “Uncle,” was my biological father. He was Indo-Guyanese with a Hindu identity and my mother was Muslim. I was raised by my mother’s first (and only) husband, up until that time, so I had his last name.

My biological father was in and out of my life, but during the revelation period when the conversation about religion came up, he suggested that we should change my name to Kris—short for Krishna. Because my father’s family nickname was Ram, he and his relatives thought it’d be clever for me to share an identity that followed the Hindu mantra honoring the supreme deities: Hare Krishna, Hare Ram. We already changed the surname on my birth certificate to my father’s, so why stop there? The conversation dropped there. Though my mother hoped I’d follow Islam, I chose neither religion but saw “Kris” as a way to finally blend in. 

It was shortly after 9/11 I started telling people to call me Kris because any Muslim-sounding name marked me as a ripe target for bullies. People thought I was different and possibly a terrorist because of my ancestry (despite never visiting either country). Instead of confronting the problem, I wanted to sweep it under the rug with the biggest brush and the strongest bristles. 

From ages 8 to 18, I went by Kris and tried to blend in, but I would still come across challenges. Occasionally, a teacher would try to encourage me to don my birth name but in doing so, would butcher the pronunciation. Things only got worse when ventriloquist comedian Jeff Dunham introduced a puppet character, Achmed the Dead Terrorist, that became a worldwide sensation. In other words, I had people either pronouncing my real name with a fake, unwarranted accent or questioning my new name because I didn’t “look like” a Kris.

I was trying to blend in, but I still needed to find myself. I thought I did this at 16 when I embraced Islam. I was diligent in my daily five prayers, fasted on Ramadan, and refrained from eating pork. Despite criticism against the faith, I was proud to be a quasi-ambassador, even though the name I went by didn’t signify an Islamic identity. When asked about this, I never had a good answer and just replied, “It’s a long story.”

The truth was that I was only comfortable using the name Kris. That changed when I was 18 and got a summer job at an Indo-Pakistani restaurant. The owner knew I was Desi, an umbrella term for anyone of South Asian ethnicity, and refused to call me Kris. I worked there almost every day, and I went by my real name. When I moved away for college, I had to think about how I would introduce myself.

Problems surfaced again when people found out my last name was of Hindu origin. They would ask, “What kind of name is that?” In other words, how do you have a Muslim first name and Hindu surname? I never had a good answer and ignored it as usual. 

I ended up fully embracing my real name in college. Ironically, it was shortly after that I walked away from Islam. I traded Islam for parties and yet, I still wasn’t fitting in. How could I have a Muslim name, eat pork and drink alcohol? 

It wasn’t long before I was a college dropout, had no job, seemingly no future, and had nothing to show for all the time I wasted. I turned to my mother for answers and finally listened to her advice. She told me to find a partner and introduced me to the woman I ended up marrying. On the surface, it sounds like an arranged marriage, which it kind of was, but my wife is not South Asian nor was she “born Muslim.” She was a convert who already had her life and career together and helped me get back on my feet with just her presence. 

It’s been almost 8 years that we’ve been together and a little more than 10 years since I started going by my birth name. Many friends from my past still know me (and address me) as Kris, but I’ve come to appreciate the name Ahmed, which means “Most Praise” in Arabic. The surname is still the same as my father’s, which raises eyebrows. I still get asked, “What kind of name is that? Muslim first name, Hindu last name?” I tell them I’m a Texan, and it’s my name, so if they don’t like it, they can get the hell out of my country.

Ahmed Sharma is a writer, historian, podcaster, and journalist based in Houston, Texas. He has been with AsAmNews since 2018,  first as an intern before becoming a staff writer with one of his breakout pieces covering a young Pakistani exchange student’s funeral in Santa Fe, Texas,  where she and several classmates were killed during a mass shooting. He regularly contributes pieces on representation in entertainment and identity-focused essays like “How Muslims Celebrate Christmas” and serves as chair for AsAmNews’ South Asian American Advisory Board. His work has also been seen in the Journal of South Texas,  the Houston Press, FOX 26 Houston, and Box Office QB’s Podcast.

AsAmNews is incorporated in the state of California as Asian American Media, Inc, a non-profit with 501c3 status. Check out our newTikTok account. Find additional content onInstagram ,TwitterandFacebook.Please consider interning, joining our staff, or submitting a story, or making a tax-deductible donation. We are committed to the highest ethical standards in journalism. Please report any typos or errors to info at AsAmNews dot com.

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