Sep 262018

Do you have a Siri name? You know, those names that you can speak into your cell phone’s voice to text program and the program automatically recognizes them? Maybe Jessica, Andrew, Eric or Elizabeth?  I do not have a Siri name. Even though we’ve gone over it multiple times, Siri still writes my name as “Meesha”, although that isn’t how I pronounce it.  I have an auto-correct name, a name that computers want to fix. “Mijha” almost always auto-corrects to “Mishap”, which elicits laughter from my friends and a grim smile from me.

With school back in session I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about names and what they mean to us.  Our parents name us with breathless hope.  They expect us to have Grace or be Precious. After some religious or cultural rituals, you can receive a new name that provides a window into your deeper, evolving self.  After getting married, some couples share the same last name to commemorate their commitment to shared lives (I know, I know, it’s more about women being the chattel property of their husbands, but I’m feeling starry-eyed and romantic).

In September, Jambo Books’ 7-9 year old subscribers received 2 books on the theme of names. The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi and Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal.  The character in The Name Jar is a young girl who recently immigrated to the United States from Korea. She has mixed feelings about using her real name and considers whether she should use an English name with her friends at school.  Because Unhei (pronounced “Yoon-hye”) never speaks her name, her classmates think she doesn’t have one and they place slips of paper with names written on them in a jar for Unhei to choose.  Unhei has to make a decision whether she will choose an English name or use her given name.  Alma is a young girl from Peru who is perplexed by the sheer length of her name. Why did her parents choose to make her name so long? Alma soon learns that each of her names belonged to a relative whose traits are reflected in Alma’s own personality.

Our own names and our power to name (as parents or pet owners) feed into the desire to fit in and also to stand out.  But names also feed into our fears about being judged and rejected. We know that people are judged by their names. Is a name “exotic” (ie. an auto-correct name)? Is the person the name is attached to “exotic”? This often leads to the inevitable: “Where are you from?” You respond, “Michigan.” The inquisitor then leans in and asks, “No, where are you from?” Sigh.

Do people encounter your name and make decisions about your education, socio-economic background and attitude? Maybe your name starts with a “La” or ends with “sha”. Maybe your name has an apostrophe in it. Now people think they know your whole story. But they don’t.

A name is as important a part of identity as ethnicity, religion, language and culture. Names may be even more important because they are uniquely ours. They are how we introduce ourselves to the world and how we address ourselves in quiet. We are more than our names, but our identity is also intimately interwoven with our names.

I leave you with a quote from Grammy and Pulitzer Prize Winner, Kendrick Lamar,

“If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name.”

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