Friday, January 19, 2007

What's in a name?

I've had this post partially written for a few months now, but when someone drew my attention to this post and others I thought it would be timely to finish it--although I'm not really writing about the same thing.

When I was little, I hated my name. It was unusual, and people always pronounced it wrong: Al-VINE-a, or Alvin, or Alvinia, etc. (It's pronounced Al-VEE-na) And since I was already struggling with being an Asian American growing up in mostly white communities, it was just another thing to make me different. I always wished my name was Amy, or Alicia, or Allison (always names starting with "A" of course...). Of course, now I love my name. There are tons of Amys in the world, not that many Alvinas, and now that I'm comfortable with who I am, I'm comfortable fitting in my name as well.

My parents picked my name out of a baby name book. They had narrowed my name down to two choices: Alvina and Melody (which is why Grace changes my character's name in Year of the Dog to "Melody"). They ended up going with "Alvina" because they thought it was a beautiful name, and they also liked the meaning of it. In the book they had, it meant "Beloved by all." Nice, right? But part of me wonders, what's in a name?

When I worked at B&N as a bookseller, one of my coworkers got into a book called The Name Book by Pierre Le Rouzie (I think it's OP now--but I actually ended up buying it and still have my copy). This was one of those personality or astrology-type books, but this one explored "the ancestry of names and reveals how names define our personality." Part of the author's note says this:
a name can change an individual, and can affect one's personality and, to a certain extent, destiny. This helps us understand what at first seems unbelievable--that names can have a direct influence on people.
I don't really trust this book, because I'm skeptical about all personality predictors partially due to a story Grace told me about how in high school her class sent handwriting samples to a company to get a personality analysis back, and when the results came in the teacher passed them out and asked everyone how accurately they thought the results reflected their personalities, and almost everyone thought they were pretty accurate, and then the teacher revealed the everyone had received the exact same results.
But still, this book got me thinking. As we've found in Libby's post on names and faces, I think many people expect a certain type of person to go with their name. For example, I certainly get a picture in my head if someone's name is "Candy" versus "Katherine." And then there's the way people make their name fit--take the name "Jennifer." There are people who never ever ever want to be called "Jenny," whereas for some people it fits. I think people must sense subconsciously the expectations of the people around them, and expectations they have of themselves.

I've known my whole life that my parents named me because of the meaning of my name. Beloved by all. And not to say that I actually AM beloved by all, but I wonder if the fact that I grew up wanting to please everyone, wanting to be liked by everyone, is in part because I wanted to live up to the meaning of my name. Sure, to a certain extent it's just human nature to want to be liked by everyone, but sometimes I felt that the feeling was stronger for me, that my actions were more motivated by this than other's were. When I tell people what my name means, they think it's nice, some people say it's fitting. I know I'm not really beloved by all. I've had a few people I've known throughout my life who have actively disliked me, and I think that hurt me more than it might have hurt other people. I cared too much.

After googling myself last year, I came across a blog with the picture above. Could there be another person with both my first and last name in the world? As it turns out, yes. She's a teenager in Singapore, and she has a blog, too. Her email was listed, so I emailed her a while ago just to say hi. She pronounces her name the same way I do. I wonder if our personalities are similar at all. I wonder how much being named "Alvina" has shaped her.


Annie Donwerth Chikamatsu said...

Alvina, I find the topic of names and how they affect our personalities fascinating. For me, "what's your name?" has always been a multiple choice question. I grew up with four possible and distinct choices that people called me. It's a long story, but suffice it to say I'm the same person no matter what you call me. But it sure gets confusing for everyone else!
Annie Donwerth

Nancy said...

Great post! And thanks for the link to mine as well.

My name means "grace" or "graceful" which is the funniest joke of all. I trip over my own shadow. And fall out of chairs without warning. And am generally an oaf. I get this un-graceful quality from my mother, whose name is also Nancy.

But I do think names fit people by and large. And when they don't people adjust. People around me adjust by calling me Karen, for no apparent reason. Maybe Karen means clumsy? Anyhow, when people get my name wrong, they almost always call me Karen.

My brothers had a friend named Steve, but they decided he didn't look or act like a Steve, so he became "Bill." And somehow, Bill was a good fit.

Anonymous said...

A post that really resonates with me Alvina!
I discussed this with a friend just recently. As a young girl, I dreaded the first day of school and the reading of roll.

I'll never forget the insensitive fourth-grade teacher who looked at my name and in front of the entire class announced, "What are you?"
Giggles and chirps of "alien" and "freak" echoed behind my back. I often heard, "But you look really American, or maybe Swedish."

I was born in this country but my father was not. My buxom high school advisor could never pronounce my name. "Don't worry, doll," she said as she painted her nails, "You can always change it. That's what everyone in Hollywood does."

I once left a guy sitting at a restaurant when he asked if I would consider going by my middle name because my first name sounded "too ethnic."

Okay, my name is ethnic. I am not Swedish. Maybe I should have tried to explain. But can you imagine if a fourth-grader in pony tails stood up and said,

My family was on the Soviet extermination list. They escaped from Lithuania and lived in refugee camps for nine years, surviving on rotten potato peels until the United States recognized my grandfather and brought our family to the States. I am named after my Aunt who was born in a bomb shelter. My name means "truth."

My name is Ruta. Having that particular name shaped my identity. I think it's a blessing. I had cousins with the exact same name. They did not survive the Soviet terror. I wear it in their honor and as a constant reminder that we can never take our freedom for granted.
- Ruta Sepetys
(sepetys at aol dot com)

Greg Pincus said...

This conversation bleeds into one that has fascinated me for a long time: the use of aliases and personas on the internet. Am I different as blogger Gregory K. than I am to the people who have met me in person? People who come to know me from online encounters... do they treat me differently because of that when we meet in the real world? Do I act differently if someone is expecting Gregory K.? And I say this even though I don't view my online persona as different than my offline. But the questions remain.

I mean, even leaving this comment Blogger says "Choose an identity" as if it's only tied to the name you log in under.

More grist for the mill, as if yours didn't create enough questions to answers!

Nancy said...

Greg(ory K.) -- that's a fascinating topic for me too! It was strange for me to have started my blog as nrkii and then after a couple of months, decide to change to Nancy, and then finally to put my full name there. I've just always been nrkii online, and to some extent, nrkii is a different person than Nancy.

Unknown said...

Yes, your name is unusual and unique; so when people shouted your name in your marathon last your, you are sure it is for you.
Also your name starts wit "A" and ends with "A", it can be shouted much louder than most other names.
Try "AAL-vin-AAH" and compare with Amy, Grace, and Nancy, you will see the differences. So when you are on stage you can hear your name been shouted not only laud and also with resonance from your fans. Finally, the sound of AAH is related with divinity such as God, Amen, Budda..etc according Weyne Dyer. We are proud that we gave you this wonderful name.

Vivian Mahoney said...

I really found this post interesting. I believe people do have an image in mind when they hear a name. Try being named after the actress who played Scarlett O'Hara because your Korean parents loved Gone With The Wind. Now that I'm married, I have an Irish last name. The look when people finally meet me, especially after talking on the phone with me....priceless.

Anonymous said...

Um, your dad posted a comment on how you got your name. That is the coolest of the cool.

hipwritermama, your situation is also the coolest of the cool.

rita (crayon huang)

Anonymous said...

wow... great post Alvina.

i guess this is long, but here goes

I can relate a great deal to what you said, I don't think I had ever thought of my name, Alejandro, until my first day in a new school in 2nd grade at my all boys (and pretty much all white) catholic school. The teacher saw my name and said, "we're gonna call you Alex" and that was that.

Right then, i was robbed of my name
and perhaps true identity...

But a terrified little big headed Colombian boy was not going to disagree so from that day on, until after college I was Alex.

Probably to my benefit, as I was also conscious of my "differentness" and resented it, and wanted to be like everyone else and not feel diffferent.

You'd think I outgrew that fast, but apparently not and not until my first job after college (at the book group with alvina and eveline)
did I start going more by Alejandro
but still it feels weird speaking in english and saying Alejandro, it feels like those Old SNL skits where you over-emphasize ethnic sounding things...

Now that I'm in Colombia it's not a factor, but it will be funny if upon my return I don't hesitate with my ALEJANDRO!!!

A-(as in Ah)
Le (as in Let)
Jan (as in Hahn)
Dro (Dr with spanish O, not oh)

Lefty said...

Hi, Alvina, I love the idea here! What's in a name?

My mother often asked if I liked my name. I didn't think much about it as a child, even though some kids called me "wretched Gretched." In fact, I was rather proud that many people mistakened my name for "Gretel", referring to the famous lost girl in that creepy fairy tale. As I got older, however, I wasn't as pleased when people would comment, "Oh that's my dog's name." (Usually a German Shepherd or St. Bernard)

Now, as an author, I often wonder if I'm taken seriously with such a sweet name. In German, Gretchen means "Little Margaret." And, I'm occasionally called "Heidi" so I know people think of my name in connection with little Alpine girls in cute dresses, hair in braids, serving coffee cake) I've even considered adding my middle initial: "Gretchen H. Olson" -- with hopes that I'd appear more intelligent, more worldly, but so far that hasn't happened.

So, call me Gretchen (Gretch is okay, too)

mbpbooks said...

Oh, don't get me going on names, Alvina. It brings out the curmudgeon in me. At least you haven't been mistakenly (?) called "Tamale" and "Attila." And as for the coffeeshop experience of attaching our handles to our orders, here's my rant about that.

Anonymous said...

You can play with your name here: