Monday, August 12, 2013


Forget, for the moment, the myths from the exoticised primitive cultures of the new world and the far east or fantasies regarding our collective pagan past before Christianity civilized us all, where wise men refuse to give names because the word holds power. Forget, even, for the moment, the more hierarchical real societies of today, with complex rules for private and public places, faces, means of address, several layers of formality and verb conjugation for the simple, crucial, proper noun avoiding second person singular. Start, for the moment, in the western, modern, white society that most of my readers either hail from or have lived in for part of their training.

Consider the questions-- No humor me while I consider them. When do I use a first name? When do I use a last, or give it up for the one belonging to the man I am not married to? When do I attach a title; Ms? a Dr.? When I am so desperate for approval that I hide behind a title permitted by education or birth? When I am so tired of arguing that I add a few letters to my signature, a nip here, and extension there, to bully my way to the small daily item I need. Implicitly I say, I am more important than you. You cannot argue the point, my name says so. If you do not give this to me, either my well respected colleagues and connections, or my important family may make life a tiny bit uncomfortable for you. 

It is difficult to enjoy Qorn Yorkshire pudding in Grey College's dining room with the Earl looking down on me pityingly for not being rich, white or male.
I am fortunate enough to live in a time and place where I can, with relatively little cost to me and mine, reap the benefits of my family's name and financial status, then shun my community and their values to strike out on my own in my great American quest for individualism. But simply because I live far away from my parents' community  does not mean that I do not reap the benefits and pay the costs their name, and that of my ancestors.

"I think your sister-in-law will have a girl," says the biologist.

"Why do you think that?" asks his lover, the expectant uncle.

"Just from the way it sits," the biologist replies.

"You believe that crap?" I ask my brother.

"Of course I do." He is joking. "Anyway, it will be nice to see a female K--, other than your mother of course."

A response struggles and rises from my larynx to my uvula, where it sprints out my mouth to correct my brother. "His mother is not a K--." After all she is not, for the purposes of observing how the K-- genome will exhibit itself in the absence of a Y chromosome. That is all the biologist was asking. It is a simple question, completely natural, only mildly offensive, and one we all ask when we want to see what a newborn looks like. 

When  the words erupt, I feel ashamed. His mother is a K--. She adopted that name nearly four decades ago, and though her boys' genetics are not credited to the family bearing her maiden name, it is impossible to deny the role she played in carving her children's personalities and success out the marble the K-- name provided her.

Not THE fig tree, but close.
She put down her name and picked up a new one. She is an accomplished, organized, stayed woman. In the chaos and ebullience of my youth, I simply dropped my name on the floor. I hardly noticed. A woman who was not my mother picked it up, dusted it off, and handed it back to me. I had graduated college. Not knowing what to do with myself, I found myself in a foreign city trying to find myself, or understand my parents, or just screw my head on tightly after twenty two years of privilege and no responsibilities beyond my own education. She put my name on the kitchen table, the centerpiece of a room that opened onto a courtyard housing a fig tree, and let me look at it in context. She taught me how to hold it on my tongue, to savor the round deep guttural sound of the second syllable, instead of ignoring it, like a middle child, between the emphatic first and the soft spoken third. This happened in the briefest of moments, during a laughter softened barb aimed at my mistrained tongue unable to dance to the rhythms of the language spoken in the city I was trying to love. I had come to that city to find my identity. I left two years later, knowing my name.

I had given up on the word by then, as one gives up on a childhood friend, as familiar and comfortable as they skin one is born in, who somehow, imperceptibly through the years, did not grow up to be the person one had originally envisioned. If one is from the right family, one graduates high school, goes to college, and gives up on such friends, freeing oneself to make new ones in brand new broad world of the freshman dormitory. It was almost thus between my name and myself. It was a stranger I was inexorably tied to, a part of me I could not rid myself of, but to whom I did not need to give much thought, another sacrifice made to reap the benefits of life in a foreign culture. I did not mind losing it, I thought. I had another name, a private one, less showy, to be sure, but unsullied in its simplicity. I kept it apart from my associates, guarded it against violation from tongues that could not dance.

I have a list of names people call me. They are all approximations of that which my mother, in her attempt to endow me with something special and incorruptable, hung around my neck. My given names range from the mundane common English name to the fanciful: a Xena-esque warrior princess, or an exotic island deep in the Pacific, whose own much distorted name rolls off the Anglo tongue with dreams of garlanded women in grass skirts. The oldest on the list is a string of monosyllabic English nouns strung together by a third grader to help her teacher during roll call. I made a similar list of words to arm my brother for his first day of kindergarten. I keep this list in a shoe box, unpinning the titles given to the name on my birth certificate, laying them carefully in the dark and protecting them from dust in an accessible part of the hall closet. They are earned medals, to be polished and shown around when I have company, each makes a good story over a department tea, worth a titter when there is nothing else to talk about.

The Pacific Islands I imagine are much prettier than any pronunciation of my name.
I learned early to wear my name lightly. It was not until I sat in that kitchen that I learned to respect it. It was not until several years later, that I fully responded to the thrilling sound of those three syllables, when a man who was not my lover pronounced  them properly. In the intervening years, I have struggled with the roles of my two names, the public mutilated one, venturing into the world every day to perform the tasks that need to be done, trying to rebuild a sense of dignity and propriety for herself, and her quiet, shy, protected sister, who had never left home, who had always learned that her place was by the hearth, who is mortified at the possibility that she may be forced to wear a public face. I listen to friends tell me how this concept of two names is not so different, that in far away Thailand, they have a similar custom. I shut the door and tell the private name not to go out today.

I find another who lives with a duality of names. By intention or accident he fell upon a split world, where two circles of his life knew him by different pronouns. It seems so strange to people raised in the west that all parts of our lives, private and public, work and leisure, childhood and adulthood would not be united by one overarching word. In fact, it is the most obvious thing in the world that it should not be so, as natural as taking off one's uniform when coming home from work. I share my duality with him, I revel in the fact that he understands, in spite of the very different pathways along we reached this common state.

I live now in a third country, one that saw neither my parents' nor my own birth. It has a convoluted history with the first of these three. I find books in my parents' language in the library, and women dressed as my aunts and cousins at the bus stop. I visit my brother's lover's parents and relearn that educated, liberal, political upper middle class of this third country still see that first as one that must still be guided; a wayward child of a man who once served the household long and loyally, back in the day when servants were still easy to come by. How strange is it that the old man who watched your shoes as you entered the mosque expects to be tipped, how quaint that he smiled a great toothless smile when you gave him chewing gum instead of change. How different this queer culture is from the civilized practice of tipping the man in the cloak room at the restaurant last night. 

I will raise my son here. I do not fear that his friends will wonder if he lives in a teepee, not only because the lifestyle of the nomadic tribes of the great midwestern plains is not an integral part of childhood culture here. I take comfort in the knowledge that his peers at least know the continent of his grandparent's birth. I realize that he will face a different set of challenges, ones that resonate more closely with my experience being called Aunt Jemima on the school bus, challenges created by a hatred that is born of an over familiarity with a disdained culture. His teachers will not ask him how to pronounce his name. They have seen other names like his, children colored like him pass through their hands every year. None of them ever objected to what this country christened them. They know better. They have done this before.

I watch my son correct me over the mispronunciation of his own complicated name, lovingly hung on his neck by his parents, a jewel encrusted albatross to distinguish him in this new foreign land. The accent is on the penultimate syllable, mom, not the first. Don't you know ANYTHING? I let it go. If I am lucky, history will repeat itself fully.

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