Some days I’m just moving in the shadows. That’s both the beauty and the bother of being an expat. I pinch myself to make sure I’m still real. Still a human being.
Growing up in a smallish Midwest city meant I enjoyed an endless stream of lasagna jokes every time some clown who couldn’t read tried to say my name. My irritation with this was second only to the lifelong barrage of height jokes, especially Michael Sikes telling everyone in the third grade I was so short because I sniffed glue. Anyhow, when I married someone with an “ordinary” last name, it seemed like a no-brainer to take it as my own (not to say anything of the passive aggressive pressure from families with traditional values). At the time I could neither envision that I would one day live in a country where that “ordinary” name was anything but or that I would encounter a certain jackass at the Ordnungsamt who would decide to change my name to suit his own opinion about what it should be.
When we first moved to Germany, my US passport merely had an addendum in the very back page reflecting my post-marriage legal name. This had already resulted in a number of super-fun airport detainments in which I attempted to explain how I do not actually control government agencies or their policies and could not even suggest why they would not issue me a brand new passport with my updated name but yes, I would think seriously about ponying up the $110 for a new one even though mine was not expiring soon. Joke was on them though, cause I totally love getting patted down and publicly humiliated. The tables turned when, just weeks after arriving in the land of unity and justice and freedom, the Ausländerbehörde frankly informed me they were required to issue my residence permit in the name appearing in my official US government document, i.e. the referenced passport. Sadly, my German skills were zilch at the time, as was my ability to stand up for myself to any official. Fast forward to this month, when I received my updated residence permit with my very own name (fourth times a charm). Win baby win!
The feeling of triumph lasted only a few hours until I received a letter from the above-mentioned jerkoff stating he was updating my freelance business registration to reflect my real name. Except the form he sent did not list my “real” name. And he had transferred my signature from my original submission to this botched abomination he drafted. You know all those stories people tell about the rotten immigrant processing at Ellis Island that resulted in the Americanization of your great-grandpappies good name? Well, I’d already determined through my own genealogy research this was a myth, but that didn’t stop me from having an out-of-body-time-travel moment. How the hell in this modern age could someone else decide what my name should be and make it officially so with a few clicks and a swipe? I let a few f-bombs (OK, a monstrously lot) fly before rationalizing I only needed to forward my documents from the Ausländerbehörde as well as my current passport (renewed last year with all appearing as and where it should) and the perfectly reasonable Herr Dichwad would fix the little error. I appreciate any expats reading this are now laughing. WTH was I thinking? Herr Dichwad dug in his heels and showed me exactly who was in charge. Not only did he not correct my name to match my residence permit, he reverted it further to my birth name, added a compound surname and informed me that my claimed name was “ungewöhnlich.” You can guess what I did next. More f-bombs. Then I sat, closed my eyes and meditated. Clearly this was too irrational not to be a lesson from which I was meant to create some greater good.
What did I think about while I meditated? First I wallowed in my feelings of helplessness. How could I, a champion debater, not convince someone of the most obvious truth? My own damn name! I got angry about a man depriving me of what I think is one of the most basic forms of respect in civilized societies, addressing someone properly with their chosen name. Regardless of how many times I wished for a different one as a kid, adulthood brings with it an appreciation for where you came from and, lasagna jokes be damned, I’m proud of my roots. Then I breathed. Deeply. And I thought about how privileged I am to experience the world from many vantage points. My anger shifted to a feeling of sadness for the people, especially the women, who are forced to leave where they come from, not because they want to, but because it is the only choice if they want to live. I visualized the sign hanging in my son’s Kita asking for donations for two refugee mothers and their children. I only have a small inkling of the intensely overwhelming situation they’ve found themselves in, running from their fucked-up homes directly into an abyss. I breathed deeply again, opened my eyes, and had all at once made some small peace with my sixteen-year-old self and determined how I could transform my frustration with the futile into fulfillment of the fundamental job of humanity. As the Dalai Lama says ” If you can, help others; if you cannot do that, at least do not harm them.”
So, here’s the part where I ask you to join me in a little exercise. Whatever you might have thought yesterday about immigration or refugees in your backyard, forget it all for a few minutes. Instead, think about the road you’re on, and all the people you’ve met who have impacted your life in ways you never predicted. Now, imagine none of them existed because, somewhere along their journey, someone didn’t think they counted as a person. For just a bit longer now, park your cynicism and embrace that part of you that wants to unashamedly hug every crinkly-faced crank to bring just a teensy weensy glimmer of happy into their lives. Grab that part of you by the hand, click over here and decide how YOU will help.
Struggling to put yourself in someone else’s shoes? Try this: http://www.playagainstallodds.ca/
And Herr Dichwad? This little throwback gem‘s for you.