What's In A Name?

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My name is Ebi.

When people see my name in print—Theodora Sarah Abigail—they rarely know what to expect. These three first names don’t give too many clues about who I might be.

On paper, I could be anyone.

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I grew up in towns full of white people whose last names melted easy on my American tongue. I had playdates with Smiths and Walkers and Judds and Bommers—these names had been passed down through history and could be traced steadily upwards, from my friends all the way up to their ornery great-great-great grandfathers and European immigrants. They held an unmistakable air of legitimacy.

My own name did not. It was totally, absolutely clean. It reflected no history; I was an outsider with no traceable past, no culture to call mine.

My parents’ names are Prajnawati Wibowo and Tirta Wahyudi (my mother and father, respectively). These are beautiful names that belie hints of jasmine, and traditional manisan bought early at the morning bazaar, and stalks of lemongrass. The soft step of the “t” and the long, drawn out “o” in Wibowo were sounds that I cherished and repeated to myself in the comfort of my room. I compared my parents’ names with mine, wondering why I was never given an Indonesian—or, at the very least, a Chinese—name.

I am the first of four children, and was born in the sweltering Indonesian city of Jakarta. My brothers were born in various cities in the United States, and because American birth certificates work differently from Indonesian ones, they were given the last name “Zheng”.

The letters that summoned my mother and father to school for Parent-Teacher Conferences always addressed them as “Mrs. Abigail” and “Mr. Abigail”. Where was the link between us?

As I grew older, I also grew angrier. I resented my brothers for their obvious claim to their identity. “But At least I understand Bahasa Indonesia,” I said to myself. “What do they know?” They weren’t even born there.

The envy continued, popped up inconveniently whenever I made a new Asian acquaintance. What were the chances that they, too, had to doubt their identity? They always had proof of who they were—it was right on their birth certificates. Clean, pristine, and laminated.

When they talked about their experiences as Indonesian immigrants, people always believed them—with names like “Serworwora” or “Liem”, who wouldn’t?

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I had dreams of writing early on, but in those days, I spent more time revising my name than my manuscripts. It was a very real insecurity to me, the idea that people might doubt me because of my name (or lack of one). My daydreams were full of faceless Indonesian men, who I would marry for their names. Without them, how else would my readers know who I was?

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When I finally moved to Indonesia, I realized that people were doing perfectly fine without last names. In fact, many people in Indonesia chose not them. What a foreign idea.

For the first time, I began asking instead of assuming. I called up my friends back home. “Tell me about your history,” I said. They pulled their family myths out of their dusty closets, and kneaded them into stories I could keep true forever in my memory.

Family names carry weight—they are indestructible legacies—but they also move like curses. My friends had legacies to maintain, and torches to bear—of decorum, wealth, success. When they didn’t measure up to the standards, they were chopped out of the family.

And in the States, they faced more minor wars. Out of their fear of retribution for their foreignness, they would truncate and chop off entire syllables, intentionally crippling the letters so that they’d fit easier inside narrow white mouths.

They’d adopted cool, simple American titles—Kevin, Bill, Audrey—to avoid fielding the question of, “How do you pronounce your name?”. No more headaches and cringing when hearing their true names, fumbled and tripped over so carelessly.

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For the first time in my life, I felt grateful. Yes—my friends’ names were beautiful. They carried incredible culture and history. They made people’s heads turn, forced double takes. But they also carried stigma. Because of such simple syllables on slips of papers, they were mistreated, laughed at, discriminated against, and rejected.

I realized that, because of the three simple and unassuming names I hated so much, I’d stumbled into a special type of privilege. People didn’t know what to expect—which meant that I had a clean slate to work with. I could present myself as I wished.

I don’t have to suffer from subtle racism; I don’t have to snip letters out of my name. No one profiles me or assumes certain things about my personality—my culture—my habits—my smell—anything. For that, finally, I have learned to be grateful.

Theodora AbigailComment