The trouble with living in Seattle with a foreign-sounding name

This coffee was not for "Abby." (Photo by Venice Buhain.)
This coffee was not for “Abby.” (Photo by Venice Buhain.)

It is early in the afternoon when I enter into a Starbucks near my favorite writing spot in downtown Seattle. The place is not crowded at this time of day, the aroma is beautiful as always, and I feel warm at the view of steam emanating from the espresso machines before it diffuses into the air.

I simper as a smiling barista hurries to the counter:

“Hi! What can I get started for you?”

“I’d like a grande cinnamon dolce latte, please.”

The barista grabs a cup and pulls a Sharpie out of her apron’s pocket. My mouth gets a bit dry.

“Can I get a name for your order?”

“Abby!”

I can almost hear my brother in Jordan chuckle all the way across the ocean. I picture my mother cringing at me for lying – again. I can almost see my father shaking his head. I look behind me at my reflection in the glass door and think to myself, “But that’s not my name!

“A grande cinnamon dolce latte for Abby!” announces another barista.


I sift through my handbag and guided by the flashing green light, I find my cellphone buried at the bottom. There is a missed call from my son’s school. I try not to panic and return the call. A woman’s voice greets me and asks who is calling.

“This is Abraham’s mother.”

It may sound like I am following the Arabic tradition of introducing myself using Umm (which means “mother” in English) followed by the name of my eldest son, but I am not. I am simply trying to avoid having to hear my name butchered many times before my interlocutor finally blushes and apologizes, or makes a rude comment – usually with good intentions – and gives up trying to say it correctly, and I purse my lips in frustration or give a fake smile that doesn’t usually ease the awkwardness of the situation. Not possible over the phone, anyway.

My son’s teacher tells me over the phone that he has an earache and needs to go home. I go pick him up from school, and call his doctor to schedule an appointment. I give the receptionist my son’s information.

“And what’s your name, ma’am?”

“Ibtihal”

“I’m sorry?”

“Ibtihal.” Then I anticipate her next question and act proactively: “I-b-t-i-h-a-l.”

Two hours later, we arrive at the clinic, check in and sit at the waiting room. A nurse lets us know it is our turn: “Ibeethal Mam-mood?”

That is exactly why I told the barista that my name was Abby.


Talk about first impressions.

It is Friday night and I arrive at a friend’s birthday party at some fancy bar in Seattle. I scan the tables and our eyes meet. She gets up, walks toward me, greets me with a hug, and introduces me to the rest of her friends:

“Everybody, this is my friend Ibtihal!”

“Hi!” says everyone with a smile. I smile back, knowing that none of them could possibly repeat my name correctly.

A conversation starter? Maybe, but an alienating one at that. It has become habitual for me to spend the first 15-20 minutes after meeting someone for the first time just trying to explain how to pronounce my name, what it means, and how it has impacted my life in Seattle so far. The ritual seems to emphasize the fact that I’m a “foreigner,” after I’ve called Seattle my home for the last 8 years.


But wait, that’s not all.

Before I finally decided to become a freelancer about two years ago, I spent years sending out countless applications to employers all around the city. None of them called back. I had to wonder if my name had something to do with it. Perhaps employers felt less inclined to call me back because they couldn’t pronounce my name. Perhaps “homophily” — the tendency for people to stick with others similar to themselves — was a real thing.

I was not surprised when I came across an article by Seattle writer Ruchika Tulshyan on Forbes that advised applicants with foreign-sounding names to change their names into “white-sounding names” if they wish to get hired. My name could have had something to do with it, after all.

It’s true that becoming a freelancer was perhaps one of the best decisions I have made. But I still wonder what it is like to introduce myself to others with ease. I often get tired of having to try so hard just to announce my existence, and that I am more than “Abraham’s mother” or “that Arab girl with the weird name I can’t pronounce.”

And I am certainly not “Abby.”

1 Comment

  1. I know exactly what it’s like! I, too, will oftentimes preemptively spell out of my name right after introducing myself. It baffles me why so many US-born Americans have such trouble pronouncing non-English names, regardless of whether they hear the name said (and/or spelled) out loud or see it in writing. I don’t have a particular talent for languages, but it seems easy to me to just repeat back the name I hear or attempt a phonetic pronunciation based on the way the name is written. Sure, I may not get the accent right, but at least it comes out close to how it’s supposed to sound.

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