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What's in a Name?
Steven Saum's name tongue-ties many, and their struggles are a road map to American diversity.

By Steven Saum

When lines are long at the grocery store in my neighborhood, I head for the self-checkout lane. But I prefer the old-school people-powered checkout, particularly for one moment that comes right at the end: when bananas and coffee and chips have been scanned and bagged, and the broad ribbon of receipt shimmies out of the register. The checker turns to me clasping that printed chronicle of my purchases, congratulates me on how much I've saved, then looks down at the receipt and says, "Thank you, Mister...."

That's it: the hesitation -- and knowing that what comes next is just a guess at pronunciation, but one she's required to make.

"Soamie?" she says. "Is that close?"

Soom. Schum. Schaum. Somme. Swam. Sauna. I've heard them all and then some.

Each new variation brings a fleeting delight -- a momentary unhinging of self from biography and geography. It happens that my last name, "Saum," has been kicking around the Western Hemisphere for a couple centuries, since it was brought over by some German farmers. But it still causes trouble in this country. And in the 21st century, this name could mean anything, its bearer hail from any place on the globe.

After September 2001, Americans of all stripes -- including this one -- began learning more about Islam. Some of it was an earnest attempt to understand a religion we beheld but dimly. And I found myself being asked more frequently, "Saum -- what kind of a name is that?" Usually it's asked with curiosity, not suspicion: Might be Jewish, might be Arab. In German, it means border or hem. But in Arabic, it's one of the five pillars of Islam: fasting. During Ramadan, it requires abstaining from food or drink, smoking, fighting, bad language and a number of other activities. It is supposed to teach piety and self-control, and offer lessons in understanding of the plight of the poor and hungry.

These aren't bad things to be reminded of when buying groceries. Even if that does mean another minute or two in the checkout line. That fleeting face-to-face moment also offers a glimpse of who one is in the eyes of others, where lives and history intersect. That's worth something, too.

With a Perspective, I'm Steven Saum.

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