On New Names and Citizenship

name tags

A few years ago, a woman I know from Haiti became a citizen of the United States. It was a long and weary process, full of the pit falls that only those familiar with government bureaucracy would understand.

But she did it. She studied. She took citizenship classes. She worked hard. And she did it. She became a legal citizen of the United States.

She was completing the last set of forms when the woman at the desk asked her this question: “Do you want to change your name?”

“What?” she replied, puzzled. The woman explained that she always asked people if they want to change their name at this point, because if they changed their name right then they wouldn’t have to pay anything extra. They just change it and put it with all the other paperwork.

“Yes!” was the answer. “Absolutely yes!”

In a spit second decision she became Lola. L-O-L-A.

“Done.” said the bureaucrat. And so it was.

When she relayed the story to me, we were driving home from a meeting about an hour away from Boston. We were talking about being ‘other’, about moving from your country of origin, about the journey to belong. She began talking about her desire to become a citizen and then her unexpected decision to change her name. She had no reason for becoming Lola other than seeing someone across a room one time whose name was Lola and realizing she liked the name.

For some reason this story fascinates me.

What’s in a name?

We meet Chinese immigrants all the time whose names are Jeff, Sam, Bob. Scott, Kim, Jessica. Of course, those aren’t their Chinese names at all. They have chosen them because it’s too hard to explain a hundred times a day how to pronounce their names to a group unaccustomed to the different sounds of Chinese. The same goes for other immigrants or refugees. They arrive as Tarek and they become Tom. They arrive as Khadijah and they become Carly. They arrive as Fang and become Louisa.

What is lost in the process? What has to be pushed to the back of our existence when we change a name?

Or is anything lost?

Is something gained by actively taking charge and deciding that a new name is part of the process of adjusting? 

Maybe it’s both. Maybe these new names speak of loss and gain.  Expatriates who have raised their children in other countries will often give their children a first or middle name from their adopted country. We gave our daughter Stefanie the middle name ‘Sevim’ – a name that means ‘my love’ in Turkish. Our son Joel is Joel Rehan Braddock Gardner – ‘Rehan’ is a dear friend of ours, originally from Pakistan. Those names represent countries we love and feel attached to. These names don’t represent loss – they represent gain. They tell a story. 

When we move to different countries there is a lot we leave behind, but there is a chance to change as well. There is a chance to reinvent ourselves, to start fresh. It’s a new beginning in every way. Does taking on a new name facilitate that change.

My friend from Haiti misses many things from her country of origin. But she chose to come here for various reasons. She also chose to take on the name Lola on the day she became a citizen. No one made her do it, she just did it.

What do you think? Do you go by a different name in other countries? Do you think we lose something when we change our names to adapt to the places where we live? 

Photo credit: http://pixabay.com/en/name-nameplate-badges-trailers-441078/

6 thoughts on “On New Names and Citizenship

  1. A name does define your identity …up to a point. I have an English name and a Chinese name only used when speaking Chinese.

    Since I was born and raised in Canada, it’s not surprising that I lean more on my English name. Nothing wrong with that for me..since Canadian raised Chinese are quite different from Chinese nationals from China.


  2. I love what you wrote. It really stirred up some thoughts from this Third Culture Adult…

    I had a Chinese name given to me when I lived in Taiwan; it was selected by my Mandarin teacher and friend, and is based on the meaning of my given name (Kathleen – “pure”). It was hard to pronounce and fairly unusual, but she took great care in choosing it. Without fail, every time I introduced myself to a native speaker — once I actually made myself understood, because as I say it was a tricky pronunciation — the listener would pause, think over the characters, and then say, “That is a very good name.” And then, “Who named you?” I loved having that extra insight into the culture, knowing that my name was not just a handle, but conveyed something about the person who named me and their care for how I was known in the world.

    I grew up being called Kathy, but somewhere about middle school it started to feel like that wasn’t my name. I never had the courage to change it, which is funny considering how many nicknames I’ve gone by — it wouldn’t have been a hard thing to do, in retrospect. Having a new name in Mandarin was a treat, and perhaps contributed to a growing sense of not feeling at home with my given name. I started going by Kat online, and while that felt better (Kat being what my closest family call me), it still had a “not quite who I am in the world” feel about it.

    When I left Taiwan my marriage was falling apart, and I was returning to the States to start over. I didn’t like being “Kathy” in a new place, among new people who knew nothing of my story, of Taiwan; but not only is “Kathy” the default, it created some distance from people didn’t know that coming back was not coming home. “They don’t really know me,” I’d think. “They don’t even know I don’t like this name.” I was isolated, in part by choice, in part by the realities of being a repatriate — and the isolation was exacerbated by the fact that I’d landed in Phoenix, a city of people just passing through.

    It’s been a rough reentry, but somewhere in the midst of it I found a name that felt like me. It happened while researching a German artist for a writing project (I’d finally been able to return to school to finish my degree). The name just clicked, as if it had been waiting all along… and yet I still cannot fully commit to adopting it. It, too, is a name that would take some explaining, just as my Mandarin name did; I would have to spell and pronounce my way through every interaction, and I worry I’d grow tired of explaining myself all the time.

    I envy your friend Lola, who knew in an instant what she wanted to be called and embraced it with enthusiasm. I am still on the fence, and not sure how to try on a new name at this stage of life. No one expects you to struggle with your identity upon your return to your passport country. But this is part of my story of both loss and gain, and perhaps that is reason enough to make the change and not just try on, but actually adopt, what really feels like me.

    Sorry to go on and on… I do so appreciate the thoughtful questions posed in your post. Clearly it sparked a lot in me!


  3. I don’t change my name, but my name changes depending on which country I’m in! In the US, I’m just Robin. In the Bahamas, I’m RoBIN. In Brasil, I’m Hobin (because they pronounce the R as an H). In Japan, I’m Robeen-chan.


  4. Marilyn, an old gospel song popped into my mind when I read this: “There’s a new name written down in glory, and it’s mine, oh yes, it’s mine…With my sins forgiven, I’m bound for heaven, Nevermore to roam.” Changing one’s name is not a new idea. There are many Biblical examples of name changing, all with special meanings. On our weekly grocery shopping trip we make it a point to notice the name tag of our cashier and bagging person and we always say “Good Morning…..” and call them by name. Sometimes it is a difficult name but reading phonetically we get it out and the person gives us a big smile when we say their name. A name is so personal.


  5. Great piece. I hope lots of people chime in. I’ve always had a hard time calling my Chinese international student friends by an American name, especially if all their Chinese friends still use their Chinese name.
    I’m moving to a city soon where foreigners are always given (or choose) local names, and am already thinking lots about this. I don’t want to be an overly individualistic American who just chooses her own name by the sound of it…but I also want a name that I like and I can say easily, a name that somehow still feels like “me.”


  6. My husband “lost” a name when he became a citizen. He had four names- first, middle, mother’s maiden, and family- for his green card but the middle name didn’t get transferred to the citizenship paperwork. At the naturalization ceremony, they announced that everyone should look over the certificate and make sure the name is as you want it to appear for the rest of your life. His wasn’t but he was afraid he wouldn’t be able to become a citizen that day if he asked to have his middle name added back in and he didn’t want to delay citizenship any longer. His middle name was his (now deceased) father’s name. I can’t tell if he misses it or not. He was excited to have the citizenship interview, the naturalization ceremony, apply to vote, and apply for a U.S. passport all on the same day.


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