Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Who are you?

In conversation at a Chamber of Commerce meeting on Tuesday, my four companions included the 60ish grandson of Eastern European Jewish immigrants. He still spoke Yiddish, and had a different last name from the rest of his family, because his father, 9 years old at the time, spoke some English and was able to correct the spelling when the Ellis Island clerk got it wrong.

A mixed race black woman had an unusually-spelled African given name and a prosaic family name. Why? The immigration clerk didn't like the ethnic name. This woman's daughter wanted the ethnic name back. Mom's reaction? Fine, honey, but I'm not paying the legal fees. Her feeling-- I am not my name.

The hispanic bank manager to my left corrected our anglicized pronunciation of his name. He, in contrast, WAS his name, and wanted it recognized.

My children have names that reflect the mixed bag of their backgrounds-- Greek (Aspasia) and Swedish (Nelson) and Chinese (Chin, Seng-lim and Nga-jee) and Anglo (Julian and Nora). Perhaps we are not our names, but our names are our history. Everyone at the table had a story that used their names to illustrate something about themselves.

2 comments:

Elizabeth said...
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Elizabeth said...

Names are one of the first things you exchange and I think they can be very personal. I am named after people in my family, as are my husband and 2 kids. They may be hard to pronounce (and I hope they aren't anglicized), but in our family they carry heritage and identity. I started a website with audio clips of names so you can hear them pronounced. www.howtosaythatname.com I always appreciate when people take the time to learn the correct pronunciation of my name.