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Can I Just Call You Dr. C?

Re: Your work is done

That was the subject line in the email I received earlier this week from my friend and colleague Eva Paterson. Ha! If only.

She attached the tweet posted by Dr. Chirumamilla sharing her delight that her new colleagues had the good sense to learn to say her name. Thanks Dr. Chirumamilla for allowing me to share your tweet with my readers. As she reports, one feels seen and welcomed when people make the effort to learn our names.

How I wish everyone was treated with that level of respect.

By contrast, a young woman told me this story. Her husband, a recently minted MBA from a highly ranked school, was so excited to start his job with a venture capital firm. Alberto Joshua Garcia (not his real name) used his full name on his resume, but was called Alberto his whole life. First day at his new job he finds a box of business cards in the middle of his desk. His mentor from the previous summer had welcomed him warmly and was showing him his new office. He explained somewhat sheepishly when Alberto picked up the business cards:

“We took the liberty of using just your middle name. We hope you don't mind. We think the people you’ll deal with will be more comfortable with that. “

Alberto didn’t know what to say, so he said nothing. Starting then, his work name was Josh. Didn’t really feel comfortable with his new name, but perhaps this was what was needed to succeed in this coveted position.

One of the greatest joys of performing my work or distributing my blog is hearing from folks. After a recent performance I got this email.

“My work colleague and I went to see your play in San Rafael a couple of weeks ago. It was amazing and so powerful!! It touched me in such a personal way. My mom who is in her mid-70s legally changed her name back to her birth name, Maria Eugenia, a few years ago. I have to be honest and say that until seeing your play I had considered her decision to be mostly an inconvenience. She had 60+ years of personal and business documents under the name Mary and getting that all sorted out has been a nightmare for her and my dad. I never understood that she had lost a part of her identity when she became a naturalized citizen as a child and her name was taken from her.”

To be clear, the government does NOT force a new name upon you when you become a naturalized citizen. It gives you the chance to change your name without further legal proceedings. I had no idea that the naturalization application provided this option and researched it after reading, America, Say My Name, an NY Times opinion piece penned by Pulitzer Prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen. Click here to read the full column.

Here's what Viet Nguyen had to share about his own family experience. "When my Vietnamese parents became American citizens, they took the pragmatic route and changed their names to Joseph and Linda. My adolescent self was shocked. Were these the same people who had told me, repeatedly, that I was “100 percent Vietnamese?”

“They asked me if I wanted to change my name. There was good reason for me to change my name, for throughout my childhood my classmates had teased me by asking if my last name was Nam. As in “Viet Nam.” Get it?”

Viet reports that he gave this much thought and tried out other names, but all the contenders seemed alien. “That, in the end, was the choice I made. Not to change. Not to translate. Not, in this one instance, to adapt to America. It was true that I was born in Vietnam but made in America. Or remade. But even if I had already become an American by the time I took my oath of citizenship, I refused to take this step of changing my name." The author's family came to the US when Viet was four years old.

“Instead, I knew intuitively,” Viet Nguyen continues, “what I would one day know explicitly: that I would make Americans say my name. I felt, intuitively, that changing my name was a betrayal, as the act of translation itself carries within it the potential for betrayal, of getting things wrong, deliberately or otherwise. A betrayal of my parents, even if they had left it open to me to change my name; a betrayal of being Vietnamese, even if many Vietnamese people were ambivalent about me. A betrayal, ultimately, of me.”

“I render no judgment on people who change their names. We all make and remake our own selves. But neither should there be judgment on people who do not change their names, who insist on being themselves, even if their names induce dyslexia on the part of some Americans.”

I share Viet Nguyen's view that it is entirely up to the individual to decide whether they change their names. Likewise, I leave to each person to decide how they want to say their names. I don’t know how old Maria Eugenia was when her parents changed her name to Mary, or if they asked her if she wanted it changed. But somewhere deep inside she knew she wasn’t Mary, and although it took her many years, she did eventually reclaim her name. Felicidades Maria Eugenia, and thank you, Missy Dominguez, for sharing your mother’s story.

I love hearing your name stories, so please keep sending them.

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