Tuesday, January 6, 2009

What's in a name?

I posted a comment to a list on which I participate, and another poster kindly responded in a complimentary way. The problem was that he called me “Linda.” Another poster noticed that my name was butchered, which is not an unusual event. It happens even to my face by people I have been relating to for years (yes, that's right, YEARS).

I honestly don't have a clue what that's about. Is it just the case that some people really are bad at names? Okay, I can see where that might be the case. Or is it that any name that is not within the range of "normal" or typical names gets butchered? Could it be that there is some underlying snarkiness where folks who really want to send you a dig, but are too polite to actually do it, somehow inadvertently butcher your name? I do suspect some xenophobia involved when names of people who are somehow foreign or "other" get butchered, but could that just be me being overly sensitive as a Person of Color, a minority, and that I should just learn to "get over it"?

I do understand the casual nature of online communication that fosters a rapidity of skimming what one reads and responding off the cuff, which might contribute to getting names wrong. I get that.

I especially wonder when name butchering happens in the context of the church, where we are purportedly about valuing the dignity of every human being. A bishop lectured me once on the importance of an individual's name (and birthday), because we are unique, each a precious and unique Child of God, and should be celebrated as such. Yet, I can't tell you how many times people with whom I interact in church leadership are relieved when I – out of habit, out of exasperation, out of generosity? – give them permission to call me "Lee" instead of "Lelanda."

I do know that it was disrespectful to me and my heritage when my 7th grade social studies teacher announced that he would call me "Lee," because three syllables are too many. But what can a middle school student do in the face of a teacher's authority? That was institutionalized racism at work in the public school system. Obviously, I’ve been dealing with the name issue for a long, long time. (And for the record, I do answer to "Lee," and like its directness, a short, one-syllable call-out.)

Actually, to circle the subject for a moment . . . My name itself is an issue that I've been dealing with since birth. As a first born Asian child, I was supposed to be a boy, and the plan was to name me for my paternal grandfather, whose Chinese name was Lee Lund. His transliterated name became "Leland," and when my father welcomed a girl instead of a boy, he cleverly added an "a" to "Leland," and I became "Lelanda." So, issues around my name and who I was expected to be have been notable my whole life. I've been exercised about the "who I was expected to be" part a whole lot more than about the name part.

I wonder sometimes why I don't get more offended when my name gets butchered, especially in a meeting context where I am present, and why I don't make a more consistent effort to correct the offender. I don't think it's because I'm particularly kind or concerned for the other person's feelings, because I've been known to be a stickler for correcting errors of fact and understanding in a meeting context, even when it's an unpopular thing to do.

I reflect on the indigenous peoples who hold a name as sacred and often have public and hidden names or are given spirit names only after they achieve a level of personhood where they have finally lived into who they are created to be. My Chinese name, when broken down into its component characters, contains the pictographs for woman, mouth and moon, which I rather like and think describe me pretty well -- a feminist who wields words in the light of the moon.

I used to think that maybe I had just grown weary as a Person of Color with an unusual name and was letting folk slide when they misspoke my name, sort of an attitude of "What else is new? I'm used to it."

The answer actually lies in the fact that I know that my name, while important and full of meaning and value, is not ME. The misspeaking of my name is not about me. It's about the person who does the misspeaking. And thus, it's not my business or my place to deal with their problem of misspeaking. I also don't think that correcting the misspeaking of my name does anything to correct their perceptions should they be misperceptions or to correct their bad manners. That's the pragmatist in me.

1 comment:

C said...

I really liked this one mom, very eloquent. And I like that you didn't name either of your kids something easy because of what you experienced. Interesting attractive names with real stories and history behind them, I like it and want to continue the trend with my kids.