Posted by: MC | April 13, 2010

What’s in a Name?

“Know what that word, change, means.  Know what this time means. 
Our getting together this morning to talk, what does it mean?  Do you
know what we are doing?  What is in the journey?  Where are we going?”
Dr. Dapo Sobomehin

This morning I had my annual dental appointment.  You know, the one involving really sharp pointed hooks for scraping and poking, and the tiny rotary buffer dipped with clayish and vaguely peppermint tasting pink stuff.  It was that one.  My teeth feel smooth as pearls.

The first thing my hygienist said was, “How is your change project going?”  It had been a year since I was there last.  I thanked her for remembering.  Then my dentist asked the same thing when she came into the room later.  “It’s one of the most interesting things we’ve heard about from anyone on our case load,” they agreed.

My hygienist is Korean-American.  My dentist is Chinese-American.  Both immigrated as young adults.  We’ve talked a bit about their experiences over the years.

I suppose each of the 100 voices in EX:Change comes from a hyphenated American.  Except Native Americans.  They carry a modifier, but no hyphen.  Generally – at least historically – when the word “American” is used alone it conjures up U.S. citizens of European or Canadian background – those of Caucasian.  White people.

It’s worth listening to the way we speak.  Who we modify, who we don’t.  Who we mean when we say “people.” 

Of course, all of this can get overly PC and ridiculous.  I’ve just taken to modifying everyone or no one – depending on the day/context.  Still. 

There was an e-mail that went around over the holidays that had a worthy point. 

To All My Democratic Friends:
Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally conscious, socially responsible, low-stress, non-addictive, gender-neutral celebration of the winter solstice holiday, practiced within the most enjoyable traditions of the religious persuasion or secular practices of your choice while retaining respect for the religious/secular persuasion and/or traditions of others, or their choice not to practice religious or secular traditions at all.  I also wish you a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the generally accepted calendar year 2010, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures whose contributions to society have helped make America great. Not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country nor the only America in the Western Hemisphere. This wish is, of course, made holding in respectful regard to the race, creed, color, age, gender, physical ability, religious faith and sexual orientation of both the wisher and the wishee.

 To My Republican Friends: 
 Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year in the year of our Lord Jesus Christ 2010.

Of course, not all Republicans are Christians…but, I’m probably tipping my hand unnecessarily on the political preference thing.

Two points here.  We can be neurotic about doing it right.  We can also cause harm by being careless with our labeling. 

One thing that came across again and again on the EX:Change trip was the surprising facets of every person I encountered.  Over and over, I thought I had someone pretty well pegged going into the interview, only to be totally surprised by the range of their ideas and perspectives. 

Another cost of settling for our labels and the preconceived notions they contain is running the real risk of missing a lot of who a person is.   This of course happens in a damaging way with overdoing the categorization thing – like with the derogatory slang used to put people down.  Missing who someone is can also happen by underdoing recognition and respect of important differences. 

Yep, the paragraph-long holiday greeting is extreme.  And nonetheless, the rich variety of our ancestries IS our country.     

April 13, 2009, a year ago today, I interviewed another hyphenated American – an Iranian-American who immigrated with her family as a young woman in the late 1970’s.  Marjan Baradar is Iranian-American.  She is a psychotherapist, a counselor.  She is also a daughter of parents who chose to move their family from their homeland.  And she is mother to three children born and raised in this country.  About change, Marjan spoke with practicality, reassurance and a call to responsibility. 

“Something that is certain in this world for all of us is change.  It never goes away.  If you look at our own bodies, our development from a little infant we become these adult human beings – that’s a big change.  The process we go through from one step to the other is all change.  The weather, it’s always changing.  In one day we may have three, four different kinds of weather.  So change is one thing that is certain in people’s lives that’s going to be constant whether they like it or not.  Whether they are aware of it or not it’s going to be there.

“Some changes are, of course, better than others.  It is not necessarily that people are going to have an easy time with these changes.  I know people that, when there is gray and the weather is rainy, they don’t like it.  But, you know what?  They have no choice.  (laughs)  They have to get used to it until there are sunny days. 

“It’s through all that not giving up, it’s through all that perseverance and through all that attitude of wanting it and capturing it. And here we are.  Here we have it.  That’s what I think about change.”

“A lot of people just want to have voices, but just having voices is all we need?  Do we need to have meanings behind these voices or do we just need to have voices just so we can be a part of?  I think it’s very important to have meanings behind  these voices, not to just wanting to claim something, but for what?  To what price?  How far am I willing to contribute to all this?  That’s what I think.”

Earlier that same day, I had spoken with Marjan’s daughter, Avishan.  Avishan is 21.  She is finishing a degree in the sciences and spoke of change carefully and systematically in the four contexts of biology, human development, emotion and culture.  She spoke of organisms adapting to their environments in order to survive.  She spoke of emotional adjustments and the idea of resolution in interpersonal conflict.  When she got to culture she said, “OK, now for change culturally.  Oh, man – that’s a big one!” 

She went on, “Yeah.  I’m Iranian.  I have two Iranian parents, but I was born in America.  I have not seen the changes in culture that have taken place in Iran.  Neither have my parents after they left.  The values they took and the things they remember from their childhoods, they brought here.  Like any organism, they use those to survive.  They adapted, developed traits and passed those traits down to me and to my brother and sister. 

“However, the generation I’m in, we have American life and Iranian life.  We are the children in the middle who aren’t totally Iranian.  We may have learned how to read and write or speak the language, but we don’t understand the meaning like someone raised in Iran because we’ve been in American schools.  We’ve had to adapt – to make this change to survive in the environment of our country, America, while still feeling alright with being Iranian.  One foot is in American life – we’re American – and one foot is in our Iranian heritage.  We’re straddling this line, these two sides.  In the middle is this bottomless abyss where things like communication can get lost. 

“It shows up in the meaning of words.  Iranian parents have one definition and kids in America who are speaking English have a different definition.  Over time the meanings of these words change, especially in circumstances of immigration.  Everything that occurs in that change falls into the bottomless abyss.  Even the impossibility of being 100% American because I’m not – we’re not.  And we’re not 100% Iranian, so seriously, what are we? 

“We’re something that’s changing to adapt.  We’re just organisms like everything else.  We’re all tied together.  We’re changing.  So there isn’t any solution.  We have to somehow find a resolution – resolving these two different cultures and changing.  Seems funny to say that word – changing to survive.” 

The next day, I had a long coffee time with another person who has lived the change of immigration.   Dr. Dapo Sobomehin is Nigerian-American.  He immigrated after coming as an exchange student from a small Yoruba village as a 19 year old.  That was in 1961.  Forty eight years later, we sat together at a Starbucks on Hawthorne Street in Portland, OR.  When the camera clicked on, Dr. Dapo began this way.

“I’m a Yoruba from Nigeria West Africa.  My name is Dr. Dapo.

“Word, w-o-r-d, means a lot to the Yoruba.  We live by the word.  All the Yoruba proverbs are important.  I happened to know them all at a place and time, but now I have lost the language.  I can’t converse.  Still the proverbs of the Yoruba people stay with me, because words are very important.  We live the word.

“A word that has come to me is k-n-o-w, know.  Know what that word, change, means.  Know what this time means.  Our getting together this morning to talk, what does it mean?  Do you know what we are doing?  What is in the journey?  Where are we going?

“I have been in this country for a long time.  I came here in 1961 as an exchange.  I’ve been going back and thinking about the people I met at that time that I respected.  I collected from them wisdom – from what they knew. 

“My change, the one I enjoy so much, is you this morning sitting in front of me.  That’s American.  Every time I’m with an American, for over 40 some years, I see that change.  My mind still goes back to the village.  Then from village to here.  The biggest change of my life.  Then I as an individual, as Dapo, am connected with all of you.  I receive back.  I’m talking about that.  The way Dapo has shifted through contact with Americans. 

“I’m a citizen of the U.S. now.  My true citizenship is as a citizen of the world.  I just woke up this morning thinking my body could go at any time now and I haven’t told my children what to do with me when I’m gone.  I have no will written.  I’ve said one thing and it is this:  I wouldn’t mind to be buried here.  If they want to take it to Nigeria that’s fine.  If they asked me if I were to die in China would I want them to bring my body home?  Well, if they have the money, bring it home.  Otherwise leave it there.  But I don’t know.

“Americans are my people.  I love them so much.  I want to know them.  I work hard to change what they know of themselves so they know who they are, so they too can live their words and can love each other.”

So, what is in a word?  What is in a name?  How accurate may they ever be?  All of us who are not of exclusive Native American bloodlines are here, in part because of what now resides in a punctuation mark – a hyphen.  We are a blend. 

Even that is not the least bit simple, because of the question regarding what ought most accurately to precede the “-American.”  The question is complicated with intermarriage.  What does my friend Glenna say with a Puerto Rican-American father and a Jewish-American mother (EX:C blog, “Dayenu:  You gave us freedom and that would have been enough” 3-30-2010)?   Do I most accurately describe myself as European-American?  There are surely lots of European-American folks of various countries in my ancestral line.  There are also lots of blanks in the family trees – mostly women.  Were these people of color who would be differently hyphenated or not hyphenated at all?  I may never know.

Picking up on one of the last sentences of the long holiday paragraph – the part about America being great:  What does it mean, this name, American?  To what extent does the name tell us who we are?  To what extent do we define the name by the things we do?  Indigenous and immigrated, we all share it.  American.

As a country we have privileged ourselves with this title.  American is a name morphed from that of the late 15th century Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, and is appropriately applied to anyone living on the vast continents linked at the narrow sight of the Panama Canal.  It’s not a name for the sole use of United States’ citizens, but that’s not necessarily an argument. 

As Avishan suggested, “We’re all tied together and we’re changing.”  Right now, we live in this country with the help and constraint of hyphenation.  Not entirely good or bad – the names help us know who we are as individuals and as citizens together on this land at this time.  In the EX:Change – in any exchange with anyone whose story we think we have pegged, we stand to be surprised, heartened and inspired.

But, don’t take my word for it, check it out for yourself.


  1. I woke in the morning praying for my beloved country–the US. Our president Obama had invited the world leaders to discuss how to stop the spread of the nuclear bomb. America–the US is the only country in the world that has used this weapon on our brothers and sisters–the Japanese. Have mercy on us-my Lord!

    They sat down discussing how to stop decimating human beings on earth. At the same moment in Afganistan, American bombs were raining upon the people, the innocent civilians. The Thai government was busy killing rioters–those dissatisfied with the way things are. The Congolese government continued killing and raping the people in East Africa. And, still the Middle East is on fire as it has been for over fifty years–still we fail to quench it.

    Are you there? Where do you fit in? I know where I fit in. You join me and together we can find the way. I’m here!

  2. If I were the only one wishing the world a war-free world, I would be just fine. I’m glad, I’m not alone, but would like to see more out-cry against this abominable act. War is evil. War takes lives, war destroys family, war takes fathers away, takes mothers, and decimates our environment.

    I’m inviting all of you out there to join me. Make sure war stops for good. War must be stopped by godly people.

  3. I’m not joking about how much I care for humanity. We’re made special but not many of us knew that. On of my closest friends said while in a group “I’m not that special”. I had to correct him quickly because we are special. I know we are special. On that reason then, we must be careful how we take care of each other. We must love each other. We must share. We must diligently care for the ‘least’ among us. We are special people. Please keep that in mind. Wherever you are, be cognizant of that fact that you are special. I’m special.

    Please-let us take care of each other. Separation has taken toll on us. It is too much. Separation is psychological murder. You separate a human being, you reduce the person to non-person. In the US–this is the way many of us live our lives. It is wrong. Whoever you are, wherever you are, make sure you recognize human beings. We are special beings. We must love each other.

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