Making a name for myself

Alien on Campus

“Hi, my name is Alejandra. But you can call me Andra.”

That’s how I introduced myself to the first people I met in Berkeley as I awkwardly shook their hand. It sounds strange, but this simple phrase was carefully planned after a summer-long deliberation of what my name should be once I left Mexico to start my life in the United States.

I knew from past experiences in the United States that if I introduced myself as Alejandra as it’s pronounced in Spanish, I would most probably be answered with a blank stare, followed by a “Sorry, what’s that?”

Having to repeat your name, either because your parents got a little bit too creative or because you pronounce it in a different language, is not fun. My first solution to this inconvenience was to simply go by my middle name, Sofía. Even if I pronounced it in Spanish, Sofía flowed smoothly from the English-speaking tongue. It was the perfect name.

I mentally prepared myself to the idea of a new identity. A couple of weeks before the much-anticipated departure from Monterrey, I was talking to my friends about starting college in a different country, and I eventually confessed my plan to go by Sofía.

One of my friends had lived in Germany for a few years, where she too had gone by her middle name. She told me about the identity crisis that can come with the change — she said she’d felt distant to the people around her because they didn’t know her real name.

“Trust me, when you make close friends or start a relationship, it’ll feel strange when they don’t call you by what you know,” my friend had told me. “It simply won’t feel like you.”

I knew she was right. But still, I knew that even if I went by Alejandra the name I was used to — it would not be pronounced the same. That afternoon, my friends and I came up with Andra, which both originated from my first name and would sound less foreign in the United States. And just like that, I was baptized.

As you probably guessed, the name change did not go as planned.

Saying “Andra” felt weird on the first day, and I struggled to decide what to do about this. The entire week of orientation, I oscillated between introducing myself as Andra and Alejandra. I didn’t want to feel out of place with a name that people couldn’t pronounce, but I also didn’t want to feel like I was hiding behind another identity. On top of feeling lost in a new country and new school, I felt lost within my own name.

I’m not the only one with this narrative. When people move to a different country, we may face the struggle not only of figuring out the norms and expectations surrounding us, but also of finding how to fit our identity in a completely different setting. Feeling comfortable in my name, even if people didn’t understand me at first, was an important part of adjusting to my new home at UC Berkeley.

Luckily, I soon found out that the people around me were genuinely interested in my cultural background. During my first writing class, the professor had us stand up and introduce ourselves as could be expected in a class of only 14 people. But to my surprise, she added that she wanted us to say our names as we would in our first language. The first person who spoke, an international student from China, went up to the board and wrote his name in Chinese characters, which we all practiced saying.

When it was my turn, I stood up in front of my peers and, for the first time since coming to Berkeley, I said my name, “Alejandra Márquez” — with the Spanish pronunciation and all. The professor made me repeat it a couple of times as she practiced saying it correctly, but her enthusiasm at learning my name changed my perspective: I didn’t have to fit my identity into the English language. Actually, I didn’t have to change anything about myself.

After my first semester, I’ve come to understand that my culture is valued, and it makes up a large part of who I am. I sometimes still waver between saying the English and Spanish pronunciation of my name, but I’ve learned to be open about my identity and my past. And I’m glad I did, because it has helped me build stronger and more authentic friendships friendships where we can talk about our insecurities and differences.

So to the people I meet at UC Berkeley and at any other place I might go to in the future: Hi, my name is Alejandra. Please don’t call me by anything else.

Alejandra Márquez writes the Wednesday blog on her experience as an international student. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ale_marquez20.