By having had the opportunity to live in different countries, each with their own language, I have seen how names, my name, can change when pronounced in a different language. I now understand better why people in the US may “Americanize” their names. For ease in pronunciation, for ease with spelling, for ease with just trying to fit in…
My name is Alexandra. When I lived in the US and even when I return to visit, my name is automatically changed to Alex by whomever I happen to be with at that given moment. Teachers, fellow students, a waitress, the gal who took my pizza delivery order, colleagues. When I began high school in the US, I decided that if I had to be called by a nickname instead of my real name, then I’d prefer Lexi. From that moment on, my friends called me Lexi, teachers called me Lexi, I started signing my papers Lexi, my Grandfather even started calling me Lexi (he is the only one in my family who calls me by my nickname). For me it was like taking a new identity. When I graduated from high school and my full name was pronounced I had several friends and fellow students tell me they had no idea that Lexi was a nickname, they had always just assumed it was my real name.
When I lived in Japan, my name was アレクザンドラ a re ku zan do ra. It worked for me. Though the pronunciation changed a bit, Japanese friends tried to respect, to the best of their ability my real name.
In Brazil, I was known by two names. The Brazilians go by first names because they want to value the individual and not the person as part of his family’s name which he shares with many. Most people called me Ale-shan-dra, which is also quite close, just the ‘x’ changes to a ‘sh’ sound. However, to shop owners, at the bakery, the Kodak store, the fabric shop, I had also been called Francesca, which is ‘the French girl’ in Portuguese. I can’t help but smile with the analogy.
Now back in France, I have to get used to yet another name. The French never go by your first name, it is considered impolite. They prefer to use your family name, with a title, to show respect, good manners and to establish a distance (for people you work with, or may meet for a rendez-vous, but who are neither friend nor acquaintance). When I moved back to Paris at age 16 with my parents I was addressed as Madamoiselle Drouart. Very rarely as Alexandra. Now, I am addressed by my married name, Madame Conrad. I have to remember that people are talking to me, not my mother-in-law, or my husband’s grandmother or any of the other wonderful women in the Conrad family.
Here, when introducing myself, it is very hard to switch from giving my first-name to giving my surname. It takes some getting used to and I feel that in each country I have lived, I have had a different identity, a different name, that I have been a different person. When you arrive in a new country and don’t read or speak the language, and your name is not pronounced or used as what you are accustom to, it can be a very humbling experience. I have a better sense of empathy for those who have ever immigrated and had to change their name, either by choice or involuntarily.