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/