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/

Drunk Driving or Illegal Immigration?

On August 20th in the town of Milford, Massachusetts a drunk driver killed a 23-year-old man. The driver was in a pick-up truck and after he hit him the evidence shows that he then dragged the man for hundreds of yards before he finally stopped.

The drunk driver was from Ecuador and it has since been found that he was living illegally in the United States. We discussed this story intensely at our lunch table at work – the place where we attempt to solve world-wide problems and eat simultaneously. A couple of people at the table were quite adamant that if we had stricter immigration laws this would never have happened. One even suggested that banning immigration altogether would solve many problems in the country. They forcefully made their case but the logic failed at some point. The man was killed by drunk driving. That the alleged killer was here illegally became important only after the fact. The argument of illegal immigration needs to be in a separate arena, not mixed up with drunk driving. The problem with the reasoning is that it assumes that everyone who is in this country without the proper papers is going to drink and drive, wreaking havoc in a family and community. The reality is that most of our views of undocumented immigrants are based on either the media or who we’ve met who has that status. In my case, I could assume that all undocumented immigrant women have breast cancer because on a regular basis women who are not here legally contact me to help connect them to treatment for breast cancer. People who are here without legal papers are not all drunk drivers and they don’t all have breast cancer. That is fact.

While in Arizona our family had the privilege of being invited to two citizenship parties. Petra is from Germany and had worked hard for the status. Just days before she became a citizen she was concerned that because she had received one parking ticket she would no longer be considered for citizenship. It was a valid concern. Her life was an open book during the process. We celebrated with red,white & blue and Petra was visibly relieved that the process was finally over. She and her lovely daughter, Jaqueline, could now legally call the United States “home”.

Isabel is from Mexico. She came to the U.S. years before and was thoroughly settled with an American born husband and two beautiful girls. For her too, the citizenship process was arduous and her life was looked at through a microscope. Watching some of the bureaucracy that these friends went through I gained great respect for people who embark on this process. It’s a long way from Ellis Island to citizenship. I know those who go through the process often have little respect, and great frustration with those who circumvent the process.

Illegal immigration and drunk driving.  They are two separate issues. Each needs to be looked at with regards to the community and larger society but they should not be mixed up. To mix them up will muddy already dirty waters, making them even more difficult than they already are.