A neighbor of mine, Adaku, born to a German mother and a Nigerian father in Dusseldorf, was purposely given a Nigerian name, along with her two other siblings, by her father. The first time I got to have a long conversation with her, beyond a passing hello along the staircase, she told me it was tiresome for her to ‘always have to explain’ herself to other Germans, who assumed, based on her ‘foreign name’ and 'not looking German,’ that she was not German.
Her younger brother ended up changing his Nigerian name to a German name — which he chose himself — in his early 20s. Being male, compared to his two older sisters, I reasoned, exacerbated his experience of having a foreign name, with all the prejudices and stereotypes that came with it, to go so far as wanting to change it.
Despite her father’s noble intentions — for his children to feel connected to and be proud of their heritage — with which they had no tangible but only metaphysical contact growing up in Germany, having a ‘foreign name’ ended up being more trouble than it was worth.
I remembered when I first moved to America as a 13 year old, my name — that had been inseparable from my whole being — suddenly started sounding alien to myself when spelled and pronounced in English. When teachers, in taking attendance, hesitated before pronouncing my name in front of the whole class, I held my breath hoping that it won't come out sounding too foreign. I particularly feared substitute teachers, who invariably butchered my name.
I wondered if I should give myself one of my favorite American names. 'Valerie or Caroline?' After a consultation with my father's school friend, who had immigrated to America 20 years before us, I decided to keep my ethnic name, but shortened and simplified it, from what was literally and phonetically spelled, so that Americans could pronounce it more easily.
I started feeling less foreign, even more American just by virtue of having ‘Americanized’ my name.
Either out of political correctness or literally not noticing anything was 'foreign' about my name, I was impressed by how Americans pronounced my name with such ease, even complimenting how much they liked my name and asking what it meant, all the while assuming that I was none other than American. I considered it an ultimate form of cosmopolitanism — not even noticing anything was foreign about a name, having been so exposed to a diversity of names from all kinds of backgrounds growing up in America. As it turned out, there was no such thing as a 'foreign name' in America.
But I realized that wasn’t always the case in America. One of my piano teachers, born in the 1920s in America, changed his name, because having a Jewish name would have obviously hurt his career as a concert pianist. It wasn’t until a generation born after him, people of historically discriminated groups felt comfortable enough to keep their obviously Jewish, Irish, Chinese sounding names, and felt that their opportunities wouldn’t be compromised by having a name that disclosed their heritage. I knew that I couldn’t take the progress that America has made over the last decades for granted — it was a battle that the predecessors had to fight and attain to be where the society was at when I arrived in America in 1993.
Americans assumed that I was American, despite my foreign name. To them, there was nothing 'foreign' about me. For Adaku, most Germans assumed that she was not German. I was an immigrant, not born in America. She was not even an immigrant, born in Germany, half-German by blood. And how was she supposed to feel ‘at home’ in Germany if most Germans viewed her as a foreigner and she was daily reminded that she was not 'one of them'? I had assumed that a progress was linear growing up in America. But what had been attained, I realized, was not immune from reversal given the recent shift of ethos in America. Would there be a time, sooner than I could expect, that my name would be laughed at by a stranger or even be perceived as 'foreign' in America?