What’s Your Name? On Adopting Local Names

by Rachel Pieh Jones on November 14, 2014

what's your nameI moved to Somaliland and when people first heard my name they wanted to know why I had man’s name.

“Why is your name Rashid? You aren’t a man. Are you a man?”

Eventually I got tired of explaining that I was, indeed, a woman, despite all nomenclature to the contrary. Someone suggested I needed a Somali name and I took the first one they offered, Lula. It means diamond, or light.

Going by Lula was fun for a while and it worked really well in the village. But it isn’t my name. When I went to Nairobi or Dubai or Djibouti or Minneapolis and when I interacted with Somalis in those places, I went by Rachel.

In Djibouti I volunteered with a group of homeless women, mostly from Somalia, incredibly poor, illiterate, many with HIV. They could not pronounce Rachel either and were thrilled when I suggested they call me Lula. I have never used Lula in any other context in Djibouti and so when I hear it now, seven years later, I know it is one of these women coming around to visit, beg, or simply passing by and greeting me.

In all other cases in Djibouti, my name is Rachel. It isn’t always easy for people to say and they forget it easily. I don’t mind, I forget theirs, too. Sometimes it does sound like Rashid. Sometimes it sounds like the French name Rachelle. That’s fine, too. Its my name, however it sounds on someone else’s lips and I appreciate their effort in trying it, appreciate my freedom to hold on to at least my name when I seem to have let so much else go in this expatriate life.

One of the biggest things I’ve been learning is the importance of authenticity. The freedom, responsibility, and joy there is in simply being who I am. That could be a series of more essays, but for this post it simply means using my name, the same name in all contexts. Grocery store, school, neighborhood, birthday party, church, running team, friend’s house, English language curriculum recording studio. With US embassy staff and with homeless women and with the parents of my kid’s friends and with Tom’s coworkers.

I feel like telling someone your name is giving them a gift. I’m saying I don’t care how you pronounce it but this is me. My name along with all the other foreign and strange things about me are what you get when we develop a relationship. I’m saying, let’s explore those differences and learn from each other, even as we learn how to say each other’s names.

However…

what's in a nameI heard another perspective from an American woman and though I didn’t change my practice, I can see her point of view.

She used to engage with Chinese students in the United States and struggled to pronounce their names, to remember their names, to remember who went with which name. They would go back and forth, battling through tones and consonant combinations, and she would still slaughter their name.

She said that when one of them would say, “Please call me David,” she felt an immense relief, sorry that she couldn’t master their original name, but thankful that they could now move beyond her embarrassing attempts and into a relationship. She knew full well what they were giving up and wished they didn’t have to. But, honestly, felt thankful.

So she has adopted a local name and when she offers her local name to people, it is a gift, as much as my real name is a gift. She is giving them an opportunity to look past awkward sounds and see her, she is putting herself to the side with humility, not insisting that her name become a divider. She is saying, I’m entering your world, help me communicate well.

How about you? Do you use your ‘real’ name overseas or adopt a local one? Why or why not?

*image via Flickr and Flickr

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.

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