Thursday, March 23, 2006

You have been "ein gedeutsched"

Identity is a funny thing. It seems that we spend the first half of our lives trying to answer the question, "Who am I?" We then spend the next half trying to reassure ourselves that it is okay to be "yourself." The Blonde Librarian wrote an interesting post about citizenship, which is one level of identify - your country. It seems that most of us (myself included) identify with a group that is often in conflict with "the other."

My identity seems to be wrapped up in my name. I am named after my grandmothers. Because my mom did not like calling out her mother's name, I was called by my middle name until I was about 11. When I was 11, I decided that I did not like that name. It was too generic and I knew several obnoxious girls with same name. When we moved to a new house and I started a new school, I became "Claire." When teachers and students asked, that was my new answer and I put it on all of my paperwork. My family thought it was weird, but thankfully let me choose my name.

In the months leading up to my marriage, I could not decide if I wanted to change my last name or not. Finally I decided to keep my name just the way it is. I figured that I had been "Claire M. Smith" for 26 years, and I was not going to change overnight into someone else. It had taken 26 years but I was finally comfortable with my name, even my middle name. It was my way of holding on to my identity in face of all the radical changes going on in my life (marriage, move to another country, career shift). Also, the bureaucracy involved in changing your name is ridiculous!! It amazes me that so many women actually do it.

My name causes trouble here in Germany, though. I have a pretty average English name. The Germans cannot handle it. They also don't care for the fact that I use my maiden name. At a street fair, one of the neighbors came up to me and said, "Mrs. Schuette, I presume."

I smiled politely. "Actually it is Ms. Smith."

He laughed. "Oh no, you are Mrs. Schuette."

I just raised an eyebrow. In the neighborhood I am known as the German's wife. The teacher's wife. When anyone calls, they ask for the wife and not the American. I have gotten used to it and now usually let it pass.

What I cannot stand, however, is when my name is "Ein gedeutsched." That means, they take my lovely English name and make it into a German name. My doctor in Kassel used to call me "Klara Schmidt" all the time no matter how many times I corrected him. It happened again yesterday.

I went to the phone company to change some information on my office account. There was a gaggle of girls standing behind the counter. They were perhaps 25? I walked boldly up to the counter and looked them all straight in the eye. One of them reluctantly came around the counter to help me. She went to the computer to look up my information. "Mrs. Schmidt?"

"No. Ms. Smith." (with exaggerated emphasis on the -th)

She stared at me as if to say, "Who the hell are you?" I stared right back as if to say, "I am the person whose business pays your salary." I explained my two problems / issues. She then gave me two telephone numbers to call and get answers to my questions. As I turned around to leave, I said under my breath (in English), "Yes, we wouldn't want you to actually work would we."

Yes, identity is a funny thing. I hate those questions in Blogger that ask me to tell them a little bit about myself. I am always at a loss. For the record, I have no intention of ever giving up my U.S. citizenship. It would be too weird. Part of my identity is my cultural up-bringing and I would never reject that.

So . . . Who am I?

I am Claire M. Smith.


Haddock said...

Germans always get my surname wrong, but I don't worry about it as long as I know who I am! :)

jen said...

I had a really hard time giving up Massana. Because of the identity thing. I worked hard to become Jennifer L. Massana. I liked her, she was one tough cookie and always up for a laugh. And being here, with Massana, i was so exotic. I wasn't just that american. I was Italian. It was like my escape. they could dislike me for being american, but because I was Italian i wasn't as offensive.

Being Frau Roder, not so great.

No german person mispronounced Massana, but I get all sorts of Roders. Ruder, Röder, Rüder. I even got an Oder once. that was really nice. I was checking for BO for the resdt of the day.

Anonymous said...

JA, Ja. I certainly know about names. Mine is always mis-pronounced [ there aren't a whole lot of Krauts around here]. So I just grin and bare it.


Claire said...

Haddock - It is good that you know who you are! It is the first step of englightment, as my old my philosophy professor used to say. My boss called my "carrie" all the time. I told him he can call me what ever he wants as long as he pays me . . . wow, once again I sound like a hooker.

Jen, this is a really good comment. Maybe having a difficult name provides us with something to talk about. However, having your name remind of BO, not so good.

Grandpa!! I have not heard from you in a few days. I was starting to worry. The German says that he is very happy that he can pronounce your name. We miss you!

Anonymous said...

hmm, any of you ever been to the US with a German name? trust me, you are living in paradise right now

Dixie said...

Maybe they like saying "Schmidt" for "Smith" because Germans can't say the "th" sound.

I get my German last name butchered in the US all the time. It starts with "Gut" and they always say it with a short U like in umbrella. Attractive sounding! Heh!

Claire said...

Oh, the German's name gets butchered all the time in the U.S. It is Schuette. Most Americans pronounce it "Shitter." Poor guy. Much worse than my problem.

Lisa said...

*LOL* Excellent post.
How in the green world do they get "Schuette" out of Smith?? And your anonymous commenter is right on. You should hear my family (or anyone else in America for that matter) trying to pronounce my German last name. It's hilarious! But then, the Germans mispronounce it too. :)

christina said...

I can't believe he called you Klara Schmidt! I've actually rarely heard a German pronounce Smith correctly, though, so maybe they're just all afraid to try.:-)

My maiden name was Ernst, also a German name, so growing up in Vancouver NO ONE could ever pronounce or spell it right. I came to dislike it and didn't mind giving it up. I initially thought of hyphenating my last name when I got married to make it Ernst-Meßmann, but my husband thought everyone would think my first name was Ernst! So I just took my husband's last name and left it at that.

But I frequently get called Christine or Christiana here instead of Christina. Oh well.

I'd also never ever ever give up my Canadian citizenship. No way.

Crystal said...

Another amazing post, and though I married very young (23) and therefore wasn't established in a career and could have changed my name easy, it is something that I would absolutely never consider doing! Plus, my husband has a German surname (he's Yugoslavian but his father worked in Germany for 30yrs and had to take a German surname to avoid discrination) and it would be really wierd for me to have such a European last name.

When women say that they do it for consistency, so that the whole family has one last name, I don't buy it, because then why not have the guy take THEIR last name? I tried to convince my husband to take on my last name or at least to revert back to his father's slavic surname, but he has a Ph.D. and had published several papers under that name, and besides it's a true hassle for a man to change his last name. When I called up our county courthouse to say I'd been married and needed papers for my husband to convert to my surname, they said that was IMPOSSIBLE etc. etc., so now we just have the different last names. Oh, but our future children WILL be getting my surname!