Tag Archives: Identity

Name Changer

First of all I apologize for how this post probably rambles on. I’ve wanted to write about my name for a while, and I’m probably trying to cram in too many thoughts at once, please bear with me. Also I don’t mean to offend anyone, or pass judgments on anyone’s particular choices. Everything in here is my own opinion and highlights choices made specifically for me and my situation. My intention is not to preach to anyone, just explain the thinking behind how I got to where I am with my own name.

Also, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but just to clarify: Both my first and last names start with C. P is in the same boat, with a first and last name that start with the same letter. So I started out at “C C” and now I am “C C-P,” and P is “P P.”

I recently received our first Christmas card of the season and the envelope was addressed to “C and P” without any last name. I couldn’t help but chuckle a little bit. I’m sure we will get all sorts of name variations on our holiday mail this year, because when we got married I decided to hyphenate my last name. I believe I’m the first person in my family to have done this, so I can imagine that many will be confused at what the protocol is for addressing an envelope when the wife decides to buck the trend, even though I’ve been putting “C-P” as our return address for the past two years.

From a very young age I felt strongly about my last name. Perhaps it’s because my dad has three daughters and no sons who could traditionally “carry on the family name,” and I think he always imagined that his branch of the “C’s” would end with him. Or maybe I’ve always been stubborn with an acute sense of how I perceive my identity; but anyway, I never understood why a man intrinsically got to keep his name while a woman spent part of her life as one name and the rest as another. Something about it just irked me to the core.

However, ironically, I also admit that I was equally annoyed as a child when movie stars who I knew were married didn’t somehow share a semblance of a name to publicly show their familial tie. I always felt that without some sort of name connection the family lacked a sense of unity, or wasn’t as committed to each other.

I didn’t know how to rectify this in my mind. Growing up in a fairly conservative place, I didn’t really have classmates with different naming conventions. I didn’t know what options were available to me, or that options even existed! As I said before, my family always followed the pattern of a new wife taking her husband’s name upon marriage.

Then in high school my parents began their long messy divorce. I remember feeling strange for my mom… that she was now saddled with her married “C” last name which she elected to keep as a visible sign of her connection to her kids, even though she didn’t want to be connected to my dad anymore. I’m not sure if she ever thought about it, but I certainly did… that her last name could act as a constant reminder of the husband she no longer had. By no means am I saying that I’d want to keep my name in case I’m ever divorced (heaven forbid!) so that I can retain my maiden name without much difficulty, but it was something to think about when I was at a formative age.

It also struck me that I didn’t have the same relationship with my mother’s maiden name—“M”—that I had with my own last name. Of course I always thought of the M’s as my family too, but I was never an “M” in the same sense as I was a “C” (not meaning I was closer to one family or the other, it’s just I felt more like the name “C” represented me as an individual more than the name “M” did). It saddened me to think that if I had children and didn’t pass along my name in some form, then my potential future children might have that same noncommittal feeling about my name as I have about my mother’s.

Then one of my mother’s younger sisters got married when I was a freshman in high school. She was a corporate lawyer, a high powered go-getter, someone with a strong personality who married in her thirties so she had a long life as a “M” before marriage. I was totally shocked when she took her husband’s name without batting an eye. Of anyone in my family I thought for sure she would be different, times had changed. I was almost offended, why was this strong woman deciding to change how she is identified to the world simply because she married a man?

A few years later, I was sitting next to my aunt’s daughter, a blunt eight year old, who asked me what P’s last name was. “So you will be Mrs. P after you get married?” she asked me. “No.” I told her. I could see by the expression on her face that my answer completely caught her off guard. “Why not? What else could your name be?” she asked. “Ms. C-P” I explained. It seemed to be a completely new concept for her.

A Colombian student of mine put it nicely one day… most people from Spanish speaking cultures have two last names because one is from the mother and one from the father: so for example a person named Carlos Sanchez Rodriguez had a father whose last name was “Sanchez ______” and mother whose last name was “Rodriguez ______”.

Anyway, this student of mine didn’t really understand what “maiden name” meant on immigration forms so he would put “Rodriquez” as his maiden name and “Sanchez” as his last. I told him that people in the US would interpret this to mean that he was a) a woman and b) married if he filled out forms in that way. This launched us into a long discussion of last names in the US. Even though he had been living here for several years he hadn’t realized that most Americans only have one last name, from their father’s side, he just assumed they went by one of their two names for simplicity in a class room situation. At one point he declared “But, with only one name that’s like they are an orphan on their mother’s side!” I kind of liked that line of thinking.

As a college student I decided that if I were to marry someday I would want to hyphenate because it seemed to be the best of both worlds—my name and my husband’s name—my identity, and his, with family continuity on both sides. I remember having quite a few heated debates with people about my plan. People told me that hyphenated names were “pretentious,” or too long, or confusing. That a kid would never be able to spell such a name in kindergarten. I think it was the hyphen in particular that annoyed people, but I thought that without the hyphen it would be all too easy to drop the “C” or for people to assume that “C” was a middle name and not a last name, that it would be easier to mess things  up. I thought for alphabetizing purposes a hyphen made it easier because the names were connected, so something would have to be filed under the first “C.” It made more sense to me.

“But what about your kids?” someone asked once, “If you give them the same double/hyphen name as yours, what happens if your kid’s future spouse also wants to hyphenate? Will you have grandkids with four last names? How ridiculous is that? Where does the madness end?” To that I can only answer that I made the decision for myself, and any potential future kids can ultimately make their own decisions about their own naming conventions.

As it became more apparent that my marriage partner would eventually be P, I was adamant about my choice, and the fact that any potential kids will also have the C-P last name (or P-C, at one point I said if he decided to take my name he could decide on the order). P was always fine with me keeping my C, that was never an issue. However I pressed for P to take on the C-P last name as well so that the entire family would share the same name, a stronger, more visible identifier of a family unit. At first he seemed cool with the idea, but after starting his phd program and having some publications under “P P,” and as our actual marriage got closer, he wanted to stick with just “P” for his last name.

He worried that if he changed his name people back in Nepal might find it “weird,” or that it might mess up his immigration documents, or his Nepali citizenship papers. He didn’t know the legal hoops he would have to jump through. I still encouraged the name change, but eventually figured he wasn’t going to budge. I had to be fair, I wouldn’t have been happy if he had continually pressed me to drop my C (which he never did), so I couldn’t keep pressing him to do something he didn’t want to do. When we applied for our marriage license he lingered for a few moments over the “name after marriage” question and I held my breath to see if he would change his mind, but eventually he filled it in “P” and looked up at me apologetically. Ah well.

Right before we got married I had briefly struggled with the idea of just keeping “C” instead of adding “P.” Many of the female international people I knew had kept their maiden names after marriage. This was due, at least in part, to having married in the US and not wanting to deal with changing over all their immigration documents to a new name. Many of my international students at work had kept their maiden names for the same reason—and all the Chinese students kept their names, since it was not a Chinese custom for a married woman to change her name after marriage. I had an American friend in my book club who had kept her name, and when she had a baby the baby’s last name was a hyphenated version of her’s and her husband’s name. I almost felt that by hyphenating I didn’t feel “progressive enough,” but then I would think back to the Hollywood actors that annoyed me as a kid, and realized that it was important to me to have both the names.

In particular I thought it was important to have P’s name as well as mine to denote the influence of South Asian culture in my life. Not everyone will recognize P’s name as South Asian, but those who do have a little bit more knowledge about me when I introduce myself. It kind of “breaks the ice” so to speak or gives me some South Asian street cred.

For example, a professor came to my office recently. I had sold something over the university email listserv and he was coming to collect the item. He noticed during our back and forth emails that part of my last name is “P” and he recognized it as different than the Irish sounding parts of the rest of my name. He was curious because even though he is just as “white bread” as I am, his wife is Filipino and he had known some Filipinos who had similar last names. He wanted to see if I also had a Filipino connection, and started by asking, “I don’t mean to pry, but I was interested in your name, what is its background?” It started a pretty interesting conversation.

Anyway, I digress.

I think the post-wedding transition has felt smoother for me since the “C” is still in my name. On occasion I forget to add the “P” when introducing myself (I’m getting better at it), but it’s easier to say, “I’m C C…… -P” instead of the more awkward sounding, “I’m C C—er—nope, I mean C P.” Sometimes I hear myself saying, “I’m C C-P” and I think, “maybe it does sound long and pretentious?” but ultimately I think I would have deeply mourned the complete loss of the “C” had I decided to change my name. I’m really happy with my decision. Now I just need to gently coax people to use my name correctly.

For my birthday this past August my mother sent me a card that was addressed to “Mrs. P P.” I decided to nip that trend in the bud from the get go. Perhaps it makes me sound like a psychotic control freak, but I called her up and said, “Hey mom, thanks for the card, I just wanted to ask you to please send me mail under the name ‘C C-P.’ I’m not ‘Mrs.P,’ and certainly not ‘Mrs. P P,’ I have my own name.” She brushed it off by saying, “Well, I was in a rush and it was faster to write that.” But I pointed out that in eight years of dating P and many years of living together it was never faster to write his name on my card before. She probably doesn’t really see what the big deal is, but I’m hoping the next time she sends something she will hopefully remember our conversation.

An article in the Huffington Post summed up my feelings about it (although the married couple in the example decided to change their name to a new name combining the two original last names, her sentiment on receiving the card is what I thought echoed my own):

Emily Zeugner, 32, who works in media in New York, and her husband, Amos Kenigsberg, made a similar decision — they changed their last name to Zeeberg.

Ms. Zeeberg explained that changing her name would have sent a message she wasn’t comfortable with, one that that effectively said, “I’m shedding my identity, I’m joining your family.”

“As a feminist, it really bugged me,” she said. “I’m glad that we created our new identity.”

After the two married, they received a wedding invitation addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Amos Kenigsberg.

“I just saw the envelope, and I felt such annoyance, and on a small scale, kind of outraged,” she said. “He gets full billing and his full name, and the only thing I get is Mrs. It just really pissed me off.”

Similarly, friends of ours (the Bulgarian-American couple who got married a few weeks after us) in their newlywed excitement like to call up and say to me, “hey Mrs. P!” and I usually gently correct them, “it’s Ms C-P, how are you?”

Last night we received another Christmas card in the mail from an aunt in Pennsylvania. She made out the card to “C C-P and P P,” and I appreciated her efforts in keeping us all included. I guess the best short hand would be “C-P Family/Household” I guess we will see what people ultimately do. As long as I’m not the dreaded “Mrs P P” on an envelope I’ll probably be happy.

So that’s the story of how I became C C-P. What about other married (or soon-to-be married) couples? Did you change your name or keep it, or part of it? Did you follow a tradition, or make up your own? Is there a story as to why you decided to do what you did?

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Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Choose All of the Above

I can’t pass up reposting another article I just saw on Facebook–

The New York Times today had an article on the growing population of young Americans of “mixed-race.” The article focuses on how mixed-heritage is no longer something to shy away from.

“I think it’s really important to acknowledge who you are and everything that makes you that,” said Ms. Wood, the 19-year-old vice president of the [University of Maryland “Multiracial and Biracial Student Association”]. “If someone tries to call me black I say, ‘yes — and white.’ People have the right not to acknowledge everything, but don’t do it because society tells you that you can’t.”

The article notes that 1 in 7 marriages in the US is between partners of a different race or ethnicity according to 2008-2009 data from the Pew Research Center. In July I’ll be part of that statistic, and eventually my children will as well.

The article was an interesting look into the identity issues of biracial/multiracial Americans, and I thought other readers might enjoy. To view the full text click HERE.

“Identity” by Bhuwan Dhungana

I was reading some short Nepali stories this evening and came across one that related to one of my earlier postings (Can You See Everest From Your House?) so I thought I might re-tell the story here. The story was actually written by the mother of one of my friends, so it made me even more interested to share with you. The story is called “Identity” by Bhuwan Dhungana.

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Bhuwan Dhungana

Bhuwan Dhungana

He had tried to introduce himself many times. His name was difficult even to pronounce. It was not possible at the time to find another name easier to pronounce because his identity card bore the name which he had brought with him from his country. To be sure, he looked younger on the photograph attached to it. Whoever looked at him and the photograph simultaneously would ask, glancing at him, “Are you the same person?” He would shrink back, tug at his wrinkled cheeks and reply with a smile, “Yes, of course.”

This had repeated itself many times. He had to forget everything he was supposed to say when it came time to pronounce his name. Often he felt as if his name had no existence at all. He wanted to replace the name with an easier one. But he was compelled to write the same name he had borne since birth, brought all the way from his own to this unfamiliar city. How precious that name was for him! His own name! How easily he could pronounce his precious name as many times as required! His whole family would be linked to his name, his city and his country. He never liked to conceal his name in his city. It was not his country but his name that came first.

But in this city… He had to make his country stand out tall against his name. And in that country he had to search out the snowy peaks, find their height, and move his head back and forth in lively descriptions of their natural beauty, although he himself had not climbed them. In fact he was compelled in this unfamiliar city to be Tenzing* to every stranger he met, to be the Himalayas for them. At such times his name ceased to exist.

Just now something similar had occurred. After he had introduced himself, the stranger shook his hand and said with a smile, “I know Mount Everest; you belong to it.” He suddenly became listless. How meaningless was his name! He thought of stealing the name of an unfamiliar city; he wanted to change his name. But this was both impossible and impracticable. In this large city he possessed nothing apart from his identity card to protect his existence. He was absolutely alone and helpless.

He could name each and every part of the capital of his country. He could get many things done by using his name in his city. But in this unfamiliar city he could not find anyone who could even pronounce his name correctly.

Mt. Everest

Mt. Everest

Something similar had occurred the day before too. As soon as he entered the office, he offered his hand to a man seated on a chair and told him his name. But the man kept on gazing at him with wonder. He pronounced his name more clearly. The stranger laid out a map of the world in front of him. He looked for the outline of his country on it. He felt a thrill upon reading the name Himalaya. He felt excited. Shaking hands with him, the stranger said, “You belong to Mount Everest.” This time again his name did not surface. He was introduced by way of Mount Everest. This kept occurring to him the whole day. He kept shivering from the icy cold of Mount Everest. At dinner that evening he could not feel proud of his name; he could not roar with laughter at the party. He lay sleepless for a long time that night. he kept thinking: What should a country be like if its name is to evoke instant recognition? What kind of name should a person have? He could not find an easy means by which he could introduce himself. The sentence “You belong to Mount Everest” kept reverberating in his ears. He felt himself to be a mound of snow. The whole night he felt cold. He clung to the snowy peaks in search of the existence of his name.

He was sitting eating in a restaurant. A boy eating by his side showed a map to him. It was a map of Machhapuchhre. It was very beautiful. “Have you been to this place?”

Machhapuchhre

Machhapuchhre

He vacillated for some time. He was forced to publicly proclaim the fact that he had neither seen the mountain directly nor climbed it up. He felt as if he were an announcer announcing Machhapuchhre standing beneath the Himalaya and reducing the whole country into an enclosed area.

The big city was larger than his country. There were people from different countries. He was invited to a feast. He had his identity card in his pocket.

He too looked busy among the crowd of people. He was lost in a new civilization of a new country. He wished to present his identity distinctly; he wanted to introduce himself by his name but failed to do so again and again. He shrank back during introductions. Before him were tall people. He was forced to stand next to them and to shoulder the existence of the high Himalayas. They were like flames of fire; he, like a melting peak, was turning colder. Every time he became a mountain he turned colder.

Every time he was invited to such get-togethers or parties, he found his identity card to be meaningless. He wished to display a large photo of the mountain on his chest before leaving his room- a nice photo, an attractive photo. In a foreign land, he had no better way than this to introduce himself.

Taken from Selected Stories from Nepal edited by Sajha Prakashan.

*Tenzing Norgay, along with Edmund Hillary, were the first people to sumit Everest. Due to this Tenzing is one of the most famous Nepalis for people from abroad (although sometimes he is considered Indian because he spent a considerable amount of time there).

Can You See Everest From Your House?

Nepal- a tiny country sandwiched between two giants

Nepal- a tiny country sandwiched between two giants

In general, most people know very little about Nepal. Some have never even heard of the country before, while others think it is in some other part of the world (Africa? South America? Blank stare?) In fact my mother, after having known P for some time, still referred to Nepal as “Nepal-India” for quite a while because she had at least heard of India before and knew it was a real country. I guess it was her way of creating some sort of visualization she could connect to, women wrapped in colorful fabric with dots on their foreheads, sure, I know where you are talking about…

First view of Mt. Everest from P and my trek

First view of Mount Everest from P and my trek. We made a trek to the Everest region in June for P's phd research. It was his first time to Solukhumbu, and we were only able to go 1/2 way to Base Camp due to time constraints. When P and I got back to Kathmandu many people in the city told me how lucky I was to see it, "It is in my country, and I've never laid eyes on it!"

Then there is a second group of people, those who have heard of Nepal’s great “claim to fame” Mount Everest (otherwise known as “Sagarmatha” in Nepali and “Chomolungma” in Tibetan) so thus they kind of know about Nepal. I pretty much fell into this category in the beginning. My freshman year in college I made friends with a few Nepali students and I remember a specific (and now kind of embarrassing) conversation. I had always associated “Kathmandu” with the starting point of most Everest expeditions I’d heard about in The National Geographic (my favorite magazine as a kid, heck, still my favorite magazine). I figured the city was basically at the base of the mountain.

Me: “So can you see Mt. Everest… from your house?” (eek… I sound like Sarah Palin)

Nepali friend: “You mean in Kathmandu?”

Me: “yeah, isn’t it really close?”

Nepali friend: “um, yeahsure… actually we used to climb part of it for gym class in high school. Once I made it to the top and we had a cup of tea.” He had me going for a little while until the blatant sarcasm at the end.

And now I know that the mountain is at least an hour plane ride away from the capital!

Actually, while I was writing this post, I did a quick “Google Chat” poll of Nepali friends who were online. I asked them, “When people find out you are from Nepal, what is the first thing they think of or ask you about?”

Friend 1: “Have you climbed Mt Everest, that’s one of the common questions”

Friend 2: “Have you climbed Mt. Everest?”

Friend 3: “(They become blank) and ask… Where is Nepal?”

Friend 4: “I don’t know if it’s the first thing, but many asked me if we have electricity or computers etc. Not that we don’t have power cuts, but I was like helloooo… I knew how to work on a computer before I came to the US… Someone asked my sister—how many times have you climbed Mount Everest?”

I think, more often than not, Nepali people (that I know) give the benefit of the doubt to others who genuinely don’t know anything about Nepal (Friend 4: “Many people don’t even know where Nepal is. So I have to start- it’s in Asia, in between India and China…”; Friend 3: “I use Mt. Everest as a reference to tell them where Nepal is…”)

As an American, I am not used to people not knowing anything about my home country, so it is hard for me to imagine what it might be like for my friends to run into this time and time again. I’m sure it has to be frustrating to get into conversations with people who have never heard of your country, and also a bit odd when all the knowledge someone has about your home is limited to only one small aspect of it—in this instance, Everest. I guess it is better to be associated with something like Mount Everest than having some other sort of affiliation with your country, like my poor Kazakhstani students who make a sign for their culture booth each year that says, “Borat is not from Kazakhstan.”

Photo from a Sherpa climate change festival P and I went to on our trek. These dancers/singers are probably Tibetan, although Sherpas live in both Nepal and Tibet

Photo from a Sherpa climate change festival P and I went to on our trek. These dancers/singers are in traditional dress and they are probably Tibetan. Sherpas live in both Nepal and Tibet

Probably the second most popular cultural association with Nepal, also tied to the idea of Mount Everest, are the Sherpa people. “Sherpa” can be a few things. There are “Sherpa” which is an ethnic group, but the term is sometimes used to refer to several ethnic groups that live in the Himalayan region that are sometimes lumped into the “Sherpa”

Sherpa--helping with mountain expeditions

Sherpa--helping with mountain expeditions

category because of their similarities with each other. Then there is the term “Sherpa” which has become a more generalized word for porters and climbers who help with annual mountain expeditions to Everest and other high altitude climbs in Nepal, Tibet (and sometimes India and Pakistan). Generally these porters are local people (but not always) whose bodies are better adapted to the thin atmosphere and rigors of hiking up and down the mountains. They may or may not be actual “Sherpa” but the term sticks.

So my next question in my informal mini poll was, “Does anyone think that you are a Sherpa because you are from Nepal, or make “jokes” about you being a Sherpa, even though they know you aren’t?”

Friend 1: “Yeah, I think I got called a Sherpa last Friday…”

Friend 3: “Not really, because people don’t generally know Nepal, so they don’t make the connection.”

Sherpa women (Sherpani) serve us local food during the festival

Sherpa women (Sherpani) serve us local food during the festival

Friend 2: “Not really, because I clearly don’t look like a Sherpa” (follow up question “But an American might not realize that…could it also be because you are a woman and people don’t necessarily associate Sherpas who climb Mt Everest–almost exclusively portrayed as men in documentaries and news about expeditions–with women?”) “I suppose most people have some vision of a Sherpa. But they do ask if [I’ve] climbed Mt. Everest, of course women can climb mountains too. Plus everyone thinks I shouldn’t complain about the cold because I am from Nepal and they think of the snow and mountains. Half the country is hot and tropical, we have jungles!”

P channels his "inner Sherpa" as he tries to carry our porter's load during a tea break

P channels his "inner Sherpa" as he tries to carry our porter's load during a tea break

Me: “P, does anyone else call you ‘Sherpa’ outside of my family?”

P: “Nope, its pretty much exclusively your family.”

A running “joke” with one of my uncles insinuates that since P is from Nepal he “must be” a Sherpa. When he sees P coming he calls out, “here comes the Sherpa!” and when my grandmother once asked if P was tired when holding one of my baby cousins my uncle said, “Sherpas are used to carrying heavy things! He’s fine.” After the Sherpa joke was well established, two Christmas’s in a row, two different aunts gifted P a “Sherpa blanket.” They thought it was pretty clever… Nepal has Sherpas, P is from Nepal… he will probably get a kick out of a Sherpa blanket!

P is so laid back anyway that he doesn’t take offense or care much either way about the jokes, but it is still a bit odd. I guess it is kind of like people in Nepal giving me cowboy hats for gifts and calling me “Texas” because during an 8 year period the world associated the US with George W Bush who famously considered himself Texan. That’s the only example I can think of.

Friend 1: “I actually think it is funny, considering that given the different ethnicities in Nepal, Sherpas are so popular. [I think] it’s because of the [mountaineering] industry and the Sherpas sheer awesomeness. They climb up that mountain as a job carrying all that heavy stuff for other people!”

Passing porters carrying heavy loads up the mountain trail...

Porters passing us carrying heavy loads up the mountain trail... I just had a back pack, and I was out of breath!

I agree, it is actually amazing to see the strength of some of the people up in the mountainous region in Nepal. In Solukhumbu, where P and I did our trek, the only way to transport almost all types of goods into the mountain villages was either by mule/yak caravan or by people hauling stuff on their backs. We watched people carry nearly 110 kilos up steep mountain passes to stock lodges for tourists and bring food and materials to the local people. We passed large stacks of plywood, window panes, large kerosine fuel tanks and boxes of heavy beer and sodas strapped to porters’ backs. The sheer power of the people we encountered was amazing, it was hard work for very little pay… with people often walking long distances in plastic flip flops on muddy steep passes.

This was probably all I could do... and I was just goofying around...

This was probably all I could do... and I was just goofing around...

Since I’m still not great with the kilo/pound conversion (or really any metric-to-standard conversion, I’m terrible in math), the heaviness of what the porters we saw were carrying (110 kilos…more than 240 pounds!!) didn’t really hit home until I was packing our bags for our return flight to the US. Four very large heavy suitcases were about 25 kilos each, a total of about 100 kilos. That was some math I could see! I couldn’t imagine tying these together and carrying them on my back up a rocky path.

So, how to now end this somewhat-stream-of-consciousness post? I guess the gist of it is, Nepal might be a small country that’s not on a lot of people’s radars, but good things to know so that you don’t seem silly if you find yourself talking to a Nepali person for the first time–Mount Everest is not at everyone’s doorstep (and no… they don’t run up the mountain for gym class to take tea on the summit), and not everyone is a Sherpa. It is a small place, but quite complex in lots of ways, with a diverse and interesting culture and history to explore.

And on a side note, I’ve told P… not to even think about climbing Everest. The risk is too high, and a lot of people come back with badly frostbitten fingers and toes, not to mention other things that could go wrong. After trekking near the mountain I think the idea of climbing it has become a bit alluring, but I stand my ground.