efore I was Scarlet, I was Shanee. Pronounced to rhyme with Johnny. Imagine a “w” between the “a “and the “n,” though it is never spelled with one. Where did my parents get such a name? They picked it out of a book while they were in Israel, the country of my birth. What they didn’t realize was how it was pronounced there. Instead of the way I’ve just described, the Israeli version has the accent on the second syllable. Think “Shaniqua” without the “qua.” Israelis tend to spell the name with an “i” at the end instead of a double “e” (which seems less confusing) but I got my name the way that it was, awkward spelling and pronunciation included. I was fine with it for most of my life— through college and law school and a decade of working as an attorney. Then I went to live in Israel for about a year.
All of a sudden, people could pronounce my name as soon as I said it. Not only that, but it was on keychains and stickers at regular stores– the way names like Christine or Susan are in the U.S. For the first time in my life, my name was normal. It felt so strange! And yet, it was wonderful. What ease to finally not have to repeat what my name was and how to pronounce it at the beginning of every conversation. And how funny to experience hearing someone call my name loudly in the street, then stopping and watching another person turn around waving to them. Another Shanee! For the first time, I wasn’t the only one.
I became accustomed to the ease and familiarity with which people spoke my name. The only awkward moment I had was once when an American tourist asked, upon meeting me, “But what’s your English name?”
As if Americans could only have names in English. Tell that to my friend Juanita or my colleague Haoyu. Or what about Natalie or Rachel? Even those ubiquitous “American” names originally came from French or Hebrew.
I began to research my name. Hebrew is a language written without vowels, where you have to imply their presence based on your experiences. My name is only three letters. It can be read in various ways, depending on which vowels you utilize. With certain vowels it reads as the Hebrew word for “second,” which doesn’t suit me because I am the firstborn child and don’t like the idea of being second. Preceded by the word for day, it could also mean Monday. Coincidentally, I was born on a Monday. But with the proper vowels, yielding the proper Hebrew pronunciation, my name refers to a color. The English translation of that color is Scarlet.
What a bold and beautiful color that is. Depending on your generation and cultural references, it brings to mind the literary heroine Scarlet O’Hara or the cinema darling Scarlet Johansson. To the bookish and intellectual me, being a Scarlet sounded far-fetched.
Until I returned to the United States and had to deal with “Wait, what’s your name?” Somehow I just couldn’t do it anymore. Maybe I wanted to try something new and different by having an English name for the first time in my life. So, I named myself Scarlet and people took to it quickly. I moved through my American life a bit easier. In line at Starbucks or meeting others for the first time, people had heard the name before, and I was given many compliments. It’s not a super common name and it actually is my birth name translated. I liked remaining true to that.
And, I could be worthy of the boldness of that name. I could — and did — go on writing retreats in a small town across the country. I shared stories that other people enjoyed reading. I also could — and did — try out a different career. I began teaching in Los Angeles in the second largest school district in the nation. Not only that, but I could — and did — speak in front of a large crowd of people about extremely personal things. I did all of these things as Scarlet..
Yet it wasn’t really about my name, was it? That vivid color, worn by high priests in the Bible, was the same in any language. I was the same person. Only now others could see me. The newly obvious meaning of my name helped me come out of my shell.
These days I answer to either name. One feels a bit more connected to my roots and my childhood. The other feels more intrepid, more embracing of change. Both names feel like me and reflect how I like to live: steeped in tradition yet confidently moving into the future.