This question is a follow-up to the one asking about the orphanage-bestowed name, and its importance; I’d like to expand on this a little bit if I may.
In local culture, the question to ask after someone is min aya bayt?—from which house? In this way a [family] name is closely tied to place, and in fact many family names reflect a place name as their basis: Masri, Traboulsi, Sidaoui, etc.
As we discussed in the other item, the connection that is found in a name is radically undone by an adoption agency which often ascribes a willfully connectionless moniker or even number to a child such that the reverse is true—the child is unable to trace back to originating place, house, family.
Because of this, I notice in the adoptee world various attempts at renaming oneself—either in using one’s true name, one’s bogus bureaucratic name, or else a name that reflects the mix of the above in some way.
I bring this up because last week I was informed by my lawyer that she had found my bureaucratic name in the Civil Registry, despite their willful attempt to prevent this from happening by putting an incorrect number down on my birth certificate. I am infinitely thankful for my lawyer’s persistence.
What this means is that through some bureaucratic shuffling, I can take my false adoption papers and move them from the ecclesiastical court to the civil court, base a case on my naturalization document which reveals my name change at the age of five, and present myself in front of a personal status court judge so that the words “now known as” will be added to my entry, thus allowing me to obtain Lebanese nationality.
I should be less sad, but I am not. I feel no closer to knowing anything. I feel no furthered sense of belonging. I find no justice in a bureaucratic slight of hand.
I am reminded of this passage from Malcolm X’s biography:
My application had, of course, been made and during this time I received from Chicago my “X.” The Muslim’s “X” symbolized the true African family name that he never could know. For me, my “X” replaced the white slavemaster name of “Little” which some blue-eyed devil name Little had imposed upon my paternal forebears. The receipt of my “X” meant that forever after in the nation of Islam, I would be known as Malcolm X. Mr. Muhammad taught that we would keep this “X” until God Himself returned and gave us a Holy Name from His own mouth.
This is strikingly similar to the French legal process which allows a child to be born “sous X“—”under X”—thus severing any connection to forebears.
This is of no small import. My friends in my neighborhood, when I told them I was able to regain my nationality at long last, asked me right away: “Can you change your name?” I replied that despite my use of a pseudonym (not culturally foreign here, and tied more to politics than literary use), I would want my name to be my original name, which they understood.
This makes sense again culturally speaking, since the formal way to ask for someone’s name is not “shoo ismak/ismik” — “what is your name?” but instead “shoo al-ism al-karim” — what is the beneficent naming”, which implies a bestowal of large import. All the same, I am intrigued by the radical renaming of Malcolm X, or that of Stokely Carmichael, for another example.
My question: How do you relate to your name(s)? What issues have come up for you in their use? How have they adapted over time, over communications media, and over gained knowledge about your origins?
What is your “X” and why?
Q: How do you relate to your name(s)?
I have so many that when people call me by name, It takes me a moment to register who they are talking to…
It appears I don’t relate to any of them, unfortunately.
Q: What issues have come up for you in their use?
Each one is a mirror reminding me I am living on someone else’s terms.
– I am not my mother’s daughter (my name is a hybrid of my American mother and sister’s names and I am not like either of them)
– I am not owned by my father (which I would be if I had grown up Korean)
– I do not want to be my American father’s daughter (as I must bear his name and be forever reminded of his improprieties)
– I am no longer Korean (as my Korean nick-name and fake legal name do not feel like my own either)
– I am called by my Western adopted name here in Korea, in order to keep me as foreign as possible. (I was never called this name in America, so it’s doubly strange to be called a name I’ve rejected while residing in a foreign country)
– I don’t recognize my own name when being called in waiting lines or on the phone, so I am often passed over.
– I have to pause and decide which name to give people at first meeting.
– People get confused if there is accidental crossover, and then I have to EXPLAIN again.
Q: How have they adapted over time, over communications media, and over gained knowledge about your origins?
My names have not adapted at all, but gained knowledge has caused me to create new personalities which people now call me by. In a strange way I am kind of an avatar of myself. I must compartmentalize my life and names according to who I’m interacting with. Koreans know me as one thing, Westerners know me as another thing, Adoption people know me as my case file number. Friends and family know me by my nick-name. It’s like having email aliases, only in real life.
I have spent two decades searching for a new name to replace this complicated mess, but have yet to uncover it. I have always been enamored with Malcolm X’s name, as a pure expression of an unknown variable, and as a pure expression of self determination. Lacking that, I feel like some Indonesians must have felt when the Dutch gave them their official name surname of onbekend (unknown).
What’s in a name, anyway? I think everything. It’s legendary. It has the power of the combined memory, blood, and sacrifice of generations and extends back through time and place to our first ancestors. It was the magic word that could save or destroy Fantasia in the Never Ending Story.
I am getting closer, though. I am 고아 소녀 (an orphan girl) A Muslim artist friend has combined it with Urdu to mean being peace. If I can’t be bestowed with my birthright, then at least I want my name to reflect the reality of what I am. Which these days is a peaceful/content woman of unknown origins.