For the first 26 years of my life the name I introduced myself with – the name I went by with friends, family, teachers, essentially everyone I met – was Luke. Simple. Short. Even when I lived in Japan I went by Luke to all my relatives, even though Japanese has no equivalent sound to “L” and everything comes out with a trilled and rolled “R.” Oh well. Luke is an uncommon name, but people in the States at least are familiar with it because of Star Wars and the bible.
(As an aside: that piece about the bible is interesting, because my brother John and I happen to have the names of two of the Gospels, yet we were both named for other people, and not raised with the bible. When adults heard both our names, I would often hear “Where are Matthew and Mark?” accompanied by a chuckle and wonder why everyone thought we had two more brothers. I didn’t understand the reference until I was almost an adult.)
When I was younger sometimes kids spelled my name wrong (“Luck”), and occasionally I had to explain that my name wasn’t short for Lucas, and I didn’t spell it Luc (how French!). But those were the easy problems because, see, Luke is my middle name, and wherever my legal name was used (school, banks, passports) my first name was listed as Masayuki. If I ever had a new teacher, or a substitute teacher, I would always turn into a ball of anxiety when roll was being called. I would listen intently and figure out when we were approaching my name, and when I started hearing the teacher inevitably stutter out with that longggggggggggg pause after the beginning part of my name (“Ma… Sa…….?” as if the question-voice made up for my name being apparently unpronounceable), I would preempt them and shout out “HERE!” and explain that I go by my middle name, Luke.
I didn’t want to have a painful name, a name that made adults who were normally very calm and collected throw out the question-voice and the eyes straining and the forehead lines forming every time they looked at it. I didn’t want to have to explain (again) how to pronounce Masayuki, that I was born in Japan, that I am part Japanese, that my middle name really was “Luke” and not the way I shortened “Masayuki” or translated it into English, that no, I don’t speak Japanese, or no, I don’t know what my name means (translation is a tricky bastard). It was just a name, one that I wasn’t particularly attached to. It bothered me at the time that no one else seemed to get these questions on the scale and magnitude that I did. Nor did anyone care about the etymology of “Luke” or the meaning behind it or what it implied about me. Luke is invisible in ways that Masayuki is not, and for someone who can pass as Probably-White-But-Not-Brown-Enough-To-Matter most of the time, being invisible was tantamount to being treated “the same” as “everyone else.”
The anxiety largely disappeared after high school, when I had to begin using my full name for credit cards, student ID at university, official student email, and all the other things adults routinely do. And my middle name would frequently be reduced to an initial, a reminder that it wasn’t what came first on my passport. People were fine with it. People liked my first name, even though I didn’t go by it. They thought it was neat to have a unique name, an ethnic name. I rarely talked about the widespread over-determination of my life it *still* managed to invoke among, well, almost everyone.
For example: once when I went into the student health building to pick up my graduate health insurance card, handed the woman behind the counter my student ID, exchanged a few words about how I was looking to pick up my card, and waited… and waited… and waited, as the person took my card, looked at my name, and started shuffling through a large stack of papers. She couldn’t find my paperwork, she said – did I just turn it in that day? No, I replied. Last week. She went back to looking. I’m having a minor panic attack inside because if they don’t have my paperwork, I’ve missed the enrollment period and am now without insurance until next term. She goes into another room I hear more paper shuffling. She asks another employee if there is another pile of forms. She says no. Commence sweating. First woman asks the second if she has seen my paperwork. Second woman looks at my ID, looks at me, turns to the first and says “Uh, I think I saw him over in the domestic student pile.” First woman, without asking, thought I was an international student. They have specific requirements for health insurance coverage and enrollment forms, which are kept separate from the domestic student health plans. If she had asked me I would have told her that no, I wasn’t an international student.
For example: the number of times at university where someone would email me out of the blue to ask for an appointment for something / clarification about a form I filled out / following up on something and I would call them, inevitably hearing “Oh… you don’t sound like I thought you would” and wondering if it’s because you thought I was a woman (Masayuki doesn’t really code for gender if you don’t know Japanese first names), or if you thought I didn’t speak English very well and surprise! I can form sentences together and make coherent thoughts most of the time!
For example: when I would email someone and then show up, and would (again, this happened so often I picked up on it) be told that I don’t look like what they thought I would look like. I guess I forgot to wear my kimono? Or maybe they thought I was a petite Japanese woman again? Interesting to me is that this happened (much more rarely) if I went by Luke, too – I assume is because I look more ethnic than they thought? I don’t really know, and asking those sorts of questions will make someone really defensive really fast.
Around the time I started graduate school, I got tired of feeling like I had to explain my first name, and why I went by my middle name. If I was going to have to do this so often – it came up with nearly everyone I met at some point – what was the point of going by “Luke”? So I started shortening things to ML Sugie, first in my writing. “ML Sugie” doesn’t really code for gender or a foreign ethnicity, so maybe I would be able to escape the horrors of an Ambiguously Foreign Name, if only in what I wrote, and if only for my academics. My little bubble where I can be invisible again.
Then, I joined the Peace Corps. A chance to start with a group of strangers, none of whom knew me as Luke. So I switched to my first name, and shortened it to Masa – four letters, just like Luke. “Masa” is also pretty compatible with Spanish, and quirky enough to be memorable. Some people called me Mas, some people called me Masa, people back home called me Luke – it was great. All my names were being used. I wasn’t confused, except when pausing to change my name to “Masa” when I would share stories from my past that involved other people speaking my name.
Now I’m out of the Peace Corps. I still go by both names, although I introduce myself as “Masa” now and not “Luke”. I respond to either and don’t care if my pre-Peace Corps friends still call me Luke, which is pretty confusing for lots of people (how does one introduce their old friend Luke, who goes by Masa now?) but not for me.
I’m also applying to jobs. I have had an agonizing, excruciating time looking for gainful employment. Part of me wants to believe that it’s just a terrible economy. A greater part of me remembers everything that I’ve experienced with my first name, and wonders how many people will pass over “Masayuki” if they have a similarly qualified Daniel or Jennifer in front of them. Basically, does “Masayuki Sugie, former Peace Corps Volunteer, MA in Applied Ethics, BS in Chemical Engineering” look like “Foreigner McSushi who earned a Black Belt in origami (flower arranging $5 extra) and speak English good” to everyone who doesn’t know me? Each time I see something that says “Please Print Full Legal Name” I think to myself, should I even bother? How bad is it if I just drop my first name while I am job searching, and will it look like I’m lying when people figure out that I did? I’ve even started looking for jobs that I know I am just slightly overqualified for as a chance to control for the “shit economy” excuse, but the response has been the same – in that case, I’ve probably become an overqualified person with a foreign name (which probably raises all sorts of racist red flags).
This is, of course, not a new phenomenon for people with “strange” or “foreign” sounding names. And I know that. The anxiety ball has returned, only instead of the teachers with the question voice and crinkled brow, I wonder if it is employers, and I wonder at what point I’ll just give in and go back to Luke out of desperation.
The title of this post references Romeo and Juliet, where Juliet declares:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
To which I respond: yeah, well, it’s not your particular feelings about Romeo that creates the problems here, eh?