At a Christmas party for a magazine I often freelance for, after some wine and perogies (pigs-in-a-blanket are so 2007 apparently), the editor of said magazine felt comfortable enough, or boozy enough, or both, to tell me about her first impression of me.
“When I heard your name for the first time, I thought to myself: that girl has got to change her name, she’s not going to get writing jobs because her name is so hard to pronounce,” she said.
I laughed nervously, took another swig of my $9.99 Malbec (this was a magazine party after all) and shrugged it off.
But this wasn’t the first time by name has come up as a source of adversity of sorts. It was, by last count, the 1,236th time.
A few years ago, my childhood friend, a book agent in Chicago, sent me a copy of Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake complete with a Post-It note inscription: “I hope you like this; I cried a lot since it’s about identity, immigration and growing up: all topics close to our hearts!”
I loved it for all those things but above all, I loved it because I could relate to the title character’s life-long struggle with his name, Gogol. If you haven’t read it – and you should – the story is a hauntingly beautiful tale about the child of immigrants who struggles with identity, culture, family and yes, his name.
For anyone else out there with a name that is hard to pronounce, odd, or just spelled in a way where you know your parents were trying really hard to be different—No, Sara without an “h” or Ann without an “e,” you do not count—you’re probably all too familiar with what I like to call, the “Five Step Program to Not Smelling as Sweet by Any Other Name” a.k.a. “Why you really shouldn’t name your child Pilot.”
Step 1: Ridicule.Children are cruel and will eventually find something, anything, to tease about, but the mockery comes a lot sooner when your name sounds like a popular processed cheese.
As a kid, if I walked into my grade-school classroom only to see a substitute teacher, I would break out in a cold sweat immediately. My Polish first name is spelled with a “w” but pronounced Mal-veena so it tends to be tricky for those not of an Eastern European descent. I’ve heard it all: Mal-whin-ah, Mal-win, Mal-weena. So when a teacher, unfamiliar with my name’s pronunciation would read out roll-call, as soon as she or he got to the Gs, I’d white-knuckle my desk, bracing myself for the storm of giggles that would engulf the entire room as soon as she’d read out my name phonetically, always accentuating the “w,” it seemed.
Playground nicknames also included “Weiner” (I refuse to use the word in every-day life now, opting for sausage instead), the aforementioned “Velveeta” (oh how everyone always thinks they are the first to call me that) and later on in life, thanks to Jerry Seinfeld, “Mulva.”
Step 2: Isolation.Mother Teresa (my mom, not the saint) always told me not to complain. At least it was unique, she said, and unlike in her grade-school class, I didn’t have three girls with the same name who would reply in unison when the teacher called, “Teresa.”
But being different often means you’re walking in this world alone. (That is, until you find a support group, but that’s another story.) On a trip through Portugal one summer, my husband and I stopped at a gas station to fill-up. As I went in to pay, I stopped dead in my tracks as the girl behind the counter turned to take my money and right there, on her nametag, it said: “Malvina.” I was so excited that here, in a far away land, I came across someone who shared my name, well, sort of. I proceeded to pull out my license, pointing obnoxiously to my name while flapping my arms with excitement. She indulged me for a mere second and then, the moment was over.
Coincidentally, there was one other Malvina (but again with a “v”) the same age as me in the small-ish (190,000 people) city where I grew up. But rather than being a comfort, it was more of nuisance. She, it seemed, had a much more active love life than I did. Even years later, post high school regrets (hers I think, not so much mine), I was asked if I was the “Mal-veena” who slept with a friend of a friend’s friend. I wasn’t.
Step 3: Avoidance.What didn’t kill me didn’t necessarily make me stronger, but it did, eventually, make me care less. I’ve heard so many versions of my name over the years that sometimes – most times, actually – I can’t be bothered to correct people. I may have taken it a tad too far recently when a colleague came up to me and asked why I had never corrected her mispronunciation of my name in the past two years.
At first, I didn’t really care, and since I didn’t see this woman on a regular basis, it didn’t matter. And then as time went on, and it was obvious I would run into her every few weeks, I started to feel bad about correcting her.
Step 4: Acceptance and even, Admiration.Maybe acceptance starts out as avoidance but there comes a point where you learn to embrace your weird name. All it takes is one person (OK, maybe three) who says your name is cool/different/neat. And you like it, you like it a lot.
After a semester in Australia, I came back with a sun-kissed glow only to be asked by someone if I was from Argentina. At first, I didn’t get it, but for the stranger, all signs—my name and my tan—pointed to the Islas Malvinas (a.k.a. the Falkland Islands). And from then on, that became my go-to. “What an interesting name you have,” someone would say. (This would happen of course if they didn’t see how it was spelled.) “Yes, it’s the same as the famous islands in Argentina over which you might remember the Falkland War of 1982 between Argentina and the United Kingdom was fought,” I would answer. Sometimes, depending on the person, I needed to follow that one up with Seinfeld’s Mulva episode or a quick Velveeta reference.
Step 5: The Guilt.You’d think the guilt would come before admiration and acceptance but in most cases, it doesn’t. With just a little tweak of one letter, I would have easily solved all my problems. “Weiner” would likely be something like “Vino” and it’s so much cooler to be teased for having a wine-related name than one that conjures images of hot dogs.
But every time I changed that “w” to a “v,” I heard my father’s voice: “You are Polish and your name is Polish and you should be proud of that.”
Sometimes, when I am at a coffee shop and they ask your name so they can write it on the cup, I will spell it out to the barista with a “v”. I tell myself it’s for their sake and a time-saving measure so I won’t have to watch the poor gal or guy, espresso in hand, trying to figure out how to pronounce the weird name on the cup. Plus, it doesn’t count since I’m not the one actually writing it down. Yet the guilt sets in eventually and I get rid of the evidence immediately after the last sip of coffee is gone.
So what’s in a name you ask? A lot. Maybe a life-long journey through the above five steps, or, there’s always a quick death. Just ask Romeo or Juliet.