I’m standing in the pick-up line of Yali’s, anxiously waiting for my lunch order. My eyes are fixed on the man preparing my sandwich, hoping that if we make eye contact once he’s finished, he’ll just hand it over to me quietly, without shouting my name.
But he doesn’t see me.
Don’t say it, I think. Please don’t say it.
Then he says it.
“Turkey sandwich for Murv!”
As I awkwardly walk over to get my food, my cheeks flushed, I feel a familiar wave of discomfort wash over me.
I have a very traditional Turkish name that is difficult for English speakers to pronounce. In Turkish, the last “e” of “Merve” corresponds to a sound kind of between “eh” and “ey” that’s nonexistent in English. So, the American pronunciation of my name becomes “Murv,” which rhymes with “nerve,” and I absolutely hate it.
When I started college in the United States, nobody could pronounce my name correctly. Americans, especially, would exchange awkward glances when I introduced myself, until one broke the silence and made a cliche remark about my name being “exotic.”
I felt excluded and out of place. I dreaded meeting new people, never correcting them when they mispronounced my name nor communicating the extent of my frustrations. I saw my foreign name as an inconvenience to American people who were unfamiliar with it.
This was not new to me; I always struggled to know how much space I was “allowed” to take up. In conversations, I found myself speaking too quickly, worried that people would stop listening if I took too much time. I shied away from expressing my opinions, thinking that someone else probably has a better one. Too often, I listened to a foreign voice inside me, which constantly told me not to be a bother to people.
I used to think it was just my personality, but I soon started noticing patterns. Compared to girls I knew, male friends were more comfortable correcting others and taking up space in conversations. I started wondering: What if it wasn’t my personality alone that prevented me from standing up for myself and kept me worrying about being an inconvenience? Could my gender have something to do with it?
Starting from childhood, women are repetitively silenced and taught to not “take up too much space.” In schools, quiet, rule-following girls are praised and called “good girls,” while boys are expected to be naughty, loud and energetic, making themselves seen at every move. In the business world, authoritative women are seen as “aggressive” and “cold,” whereas men with the same traits are considered ideal “bosses.”
This subtle yet powerful gender bias is constantly conditioning women to stay passive and holding them back in various aspects of their lives.
Contemplating this, I went online to find other feminists struggling with their Eastern names in the West. To my surprise, I found many. Whether it was on anonymous discussion threads or professional essays written by well-known journalists, the internet was filled with women’s experiences of feeling alienated because of their names or having to Americanize their identities to fit in. It felt amazing to see my struggles represented on these forums, but it also made me think, if so many women have the same problem, surely there’s a pattern here. Could my reservations actually be a result of how I had been taught to behave as a woman?
Gender norms and gender conditioning are complex concepts, and it isn’t possible for me to ever know how much of my personality was affected by my gender. Though conditioning certainly exists, so does deconditioning. Being aware of the gender biases at play and examining whether my tendency to stay passive is caused by my gender identity were the first steps in freeing myself from the expectations and conditioning of my gender.
Making sure my name is respected was no longer just a decorative gesture. It was a statement that I existed, with all the layers of my cross-cultural identity as a woman: a demand for the respect I deserve. It was never just about my name but whether or not I mattered enough for people to spend time learning how to say it.
Shortly after, I started feeling at ease with my identity. I started correcting people when they mispronounced my name, patiently waiting as they tried to get it right. Although I sometimes still hear the old voice in my head telling me not to be an inconvenience, I realize there is also another voice telling me I deserve the space and time I occupy.
Feminism gave me back my name, but this issue is much more than a name. Changing something as crucial to your identity as your name in order to fit in is the start of a whole process of losing a sense of your self-worth. From simply demanding that their names are respected to refusing to be interrupted in conversations, women are continuously forced to make their own spaces. Although that’s an exhausting burden to carry, it remains a constant reminder of our strength and the reason we fight for the space we so deserve.
Merve Ozdemir writes the Wednesday column on exploring her cross-cultural identity as a 21st-century feminist.