Thursday, September 08, 2005

A Boy Named Sue?

So my second grader's seatmate this year is a recent immigrant named Abdik Hussein. Poor kid. Abdik, not my son. I don't care how culturally sensitive the teachers are, this kid is going to get teased and taunted about the Hussein thing.

We've all rightly done some soul searching in recent years about the horrors heaped upon immigrants in the name of the great American Melting Pot. But really, an alert Ellis Island clerk who could have transformed Abdik Hussein into Alan Harris with the stroke of a pen might have been the best thing that could have happened to this kid-- at least as far as his social life in elementary school is concerned.

Now before you all pound me, let me explain that I am the child of an immigrant as well as the bearer of a "distinctive" last name. When my grandmother and my father arrived here in 1946, having just barely survived the Holocaust, my grandmother did a little reinvention. She changed their fairly obviously Jewish name to a fairly obviously Italian one. I can see how this made sense at the time. They were settling in New York City, she had lived in Italy for many years after leaving Russia. An Italian name would allow her olive skinned boy with curly black hair to pass, (sort of), as a less dangerous ethnic group to belong to-- at least based on her recent experience. She also packed him off to Catholic boarding school to complete the protective camoflage.

She could not have known that, one day, her son would find himself in a North Carolina mountain town filled with the descendants of Scotch-Irish immigrants. She could not know that the Italian name she had chosen as protective camoflage would cause the granddaughter who would begin her school career in this town to stick out like pasta primavera at an apple pie festival. She could not know that this "safe" Italian surname she had chosen would be like Christmas everyday for the teasers and taunters stalking the halls of Scots Creek Elementary school.

So--I don't know. Maybe changing Abdik's name wouldn't be a long term solution after all. It might work for him, but not for his grandkids.

I will say that when I had the chance to switch to a truly safe last name--one that usually has nearly a whole page of its own in the phone directory--I didn't do it. This was partly on feminist principle, but even more so on the theory that a name you've suffered for and defended every day of your childhood is not something to relinquish lightly.

But my kids got the easy name.


mis_nomer said...

Interesting post. It is common for Chinese Indonesians to change their last names to sound more Indonesian. Ironically, one of my friends who has had this surname change is finding it difficult in the country he is working in. So you're right, not necessary a long-term solution, but we've got to do what we've got to do.

peripateticpolarbear said...

And now I want to know your last name!

Friday Mom said...

Yep. I'm curious about your last name too!

jean said...

I can tell you that no matter what your last name, moving into a Scots-Irish mountain culture is not easy; you are from "somewhere else" unto the third and fourth generation.

jo(e) said...

My great grandfather americanized his obviously Italian name to a safe sort of name, which is the one I inherited. My father always says he wishes the Italian name had stayed in the family because he is proud of his Italian heritage.

My kids use my husband's Irish last name which is really funny because they look very Italian.

Wouldn't it be nice to live in a country where it was safe to use whatever name you wanted?