Names and nicknames are what you are known for. They say names are the only thing that you own that others use more than you. So choosing a name is really important. It is the first thing that anyone knows of you most of the time. Most people just choose to let their parents choose what they are called, some decides to change it and give themselves new names that feels more like them.
My experience with names are greatly tied to being a child of trauma but I have never realised it until now. I have never dived into the history of the names that I used to describe myself. Reflecting for this essay has made me realise that there is a thread, a story that connects together all the names that I call myself. This story is about my journey of finding myself through finding a name.
Sherleen Meilikha Tjandra
My full name written on my birth certificate. Those three words that haunted me. My mom gave the first two names to me. She said she sat down on the floor and meditated for hours before it came to her. And what she came up with was a name that sounds so close to my sister’s that it should not be allowed. Even when I was not born, I am already associated with my sister.
Maybe my parents just wanted their kids to sound similar, so that they can be easily associated to one another, but that WAS the problem. Having same names made people compare. It is as if to say that since your names are similar, you should act similar. It sound stupid and maybe, our similar faces, ages, and the fact that we are siblings are the reasons why we are comparedto one another, but I just didn’t like to be compared because I was always the one being criticised since I’m younger than my sister. I never felt like my own person with my name, just someone who looked and sounded similar to my sister.
“美丽” or “Mei Li”, the first part of my middle name. It means beautiful in Chinese, an ode to my chinese heritage and their hope of what their daughter would look like. So imagine their horror when they had someone who looks like me.
But this is not just my self deprecating humor. They truly are horrified. I am fat and my skin complection is too dark, or that’s what they constantly say to me. I have dark spots on my skin from the scabs that I used to pick on. My nose is too short. My lips are to big. My ass looks too big in that dress. I never dressed up as a girl because I never felt beautiful enough to be one. All thanks to my parents. My parents were simply just bullies.
My last name is my dad’s last name, the family name. Just like any good asian does, my last name follows the man, follows the father. It is history, it is heritage. Most parents want kids just to continue their lineage and history. But after years of racism towards chinese descendants in Indonesia, my family had not remembered any of our history, if we had any. That name means nothing to me. It serves no purpose.
My last name just felt like I was owned by my parents, that everyone who knows of my last name, would associate me with my family. It is something that you wouldn’t want when your parents have hurt you.
The name Sherleen Meilikha Tjandra looms over me. I am not what my parents wanted and they made sure they made me believe that for the whole of my childhood. They made me believe that I am not enough since I have not yet lived to my name. I am not beautiful and I am not like my sister. I am brash, I am rude, I am angry, I am broken, and I hate my family. Everything that my name says I should not be. But rather than changing myself to fit my name, I chose to change my name instead.
This is the first nickname I had for myself. It comes from my own name Sherleen but I just made it as if I was a baby saying it. I used to refer to myself in the third person using that name
“Elin wants to eat”
“Elin wants to go there.”
I used this nickname as a child until I was way too old to talk in baby voice, but I loved it. It was my way of not wanting to grow up. I noticed the toxic behaviour of my parents, even as a child. I had a horrible relationship with grades and my own worth, because of those who decided to even give life to me in the first place. Well, I know that now, but when I was a child, that was a whole different story.
As a child, your instincts kick in. “These are the people who give birth to you!” “Your mom spent 9 months in pain and your dad spent years working to give you a better life” You gave yourself all of the reasons that you needed to ensure that you never have the step into the unknown, to ensure that you would never have to sever ties with those familiar people regardless or not they are hurting you.
I didn’t want to grow up. Children are ignorant and selfish. They don’t have to care about anything. They don’t have responsibility over anything. Ignorance is truly bliss. Nobody wants to have horrible parents, nobody wants to believe that their childhood has to be rewritten in order to live normally. I certainly didn’t want to come to terms with it.
Growing up and realising your parents are abusive did horrible things to you. You would then realise that the apple does not fall far from the tree. I was manipulative and controlling as a friend and a partner. And it takes concious effort to change your instinctual behaviour. It is tiring work to be a good person when you have not been exposed to good people. I chose to not have a family because I don’t want to continue the cylce of abuse.
So I chose Elin for too long before my mother shamed me for not growing up.
“You need to stop using Elin. It’s embarassing for you to still talk like a child when you’re already in sixth grade.” My mom scolded me. I was 13 at that time, too old to be using the nickname I have given myself. I had to grow up. I had to face the truth.
I told my friend about this and I asked her to help me find another nickname. I don’t know why I had to find a nickname. My name was short enough, two syllables and all the nicknames that I had was the same number of syllables. But I was just so fed up with my generic name with too many e’s, my mother’s way of being edgy yet still confining to norms.
Nicknames were my way of dissociating with my own self. I needed people to stay away from using my given name. I felt like my name was associated with how I belong to my parents’ and not my own self. I never accepted my own name as my own, just a thing that my parents labelled me without my consent. Sherleen never felt like me.
My friend helped me change my name. It was Alin now, just changed one letter yet it makes all the difference. It doesn’t feel as childish, yet it is way different than my birth name. It was perfect. I felt like I was a step closer to getting the freedom from my name.
Using that name to introduce myself has never felt so free. I still use it even now. “Alin” shows that people that you love the most define you, not family. Blood of the Covenant is thinker than the Water of the Womb.
I realised pretty quickly that cutting off connections with family is hard. Yes, I may have changed my name to Alin, and I decided to grow up to see the truth. But they were your family. It is hard to say that you had to build yourself up from scratch, to discard everything that sounds and feels familiar to you. I had to be my own parents and teach myself what is right or wrong. It was tiring and grueling work that never felt complete.
I was running away from the problem at hand most of the times, because it is taxing on me. I did not always have the energy and mental wellbeing to fight the demons in my head. Until I actually did run away to Singapore. I was going to school there and I had to live in a boarding, without my parents at all. I felt free for the first time. I can reject their calls and not reply to their messages. I was in a new journey of finding myself all over again.
I realised nicknames was my way of running away. I didn’t want my name because of the baggage that it brings me. But disconnecting from the real problem, my parents, made me realise that my name is just words, just like any words. It does not have any meaning behind it unless I assign it to have meaning. So I started to accept the name on my birth certificate, for legal reasons of course. I did not want to go through a life rebranding.
Sherleen Meilikha just omits the Tjandra out of my full name. But it says everything that I stand for. I am reclaiming my own name to remove all of the negative connotations surrounding it. I am not associated with my family anymore, I am just me. I am confident, beautiful and myself. I choose this name and I am making it mine.
Sherleen Meilikha is my name and I am proud to hold it.