What’s in a name? by Hen Gur-Harye, Israel

What’s in a name?

Well actually, a lot of things. Your culture, your family’s history, your parents’ secrets. You are born with a label that defines you. A few letters bunched together that represent something more complex than just a definition – they represent you, a living, breathing human being.

I personally have had a hard time with my name. You see, I was born in a white, Christian neighborhood in one of the suburbs of San Francisco to two Israeli parents. My parents never dreamt of living in the US, and from the moment they moved, they planned on returning home, to Israel. This, and the fact that they were fresh from Israel, with no family nearby and no connections to their roots made them decide to give their first born child an Israeli name.

They didn’t want to know the gender beforehand, so the name would have to be unisex. My dad wanted a short name (he was preparing himself for all of the yelling he would have to do in the future. Imagine yelling “Anastasia GurArye, come here right now!”, quite a mouthful.) These reasons, and a certain surfer that my mom may or may not have had a crush on while growing up, all came together to form one name. Two or three letters, depending on the language, that would be my title for the remainder of my life. No pressure right?

And so, on that Thursday in 1999 a baby girl was brought into the world and her parents named her Hen (pronounced Khe n, or Chen with a guttural sound on the ch, or like the last syllable in the Dutch painter’s name Van Gogh). My parents hadn’t intended on living in the US for 15 years, and if they had, I doubt they would have stuck to the same name. Don’t get me wrong, I love my name now. But I haven’t always liked it. There was a complete period of my life during which all I wanted to do was to change my name.

It started in preschool, when my parents decided that they would spell my name in English as Chen. Let’s just say that I camouflaged well with all of the Asian toddlers in the Silicone Valley area until someone searching for me found a little blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl running around the playground and felt momentarily confused. Yup, that happened. Or in Elementary school, where we decided to try spelling my name as Hen (to avoid the whole Asian situation). If you know kids in Elementary school, you know how much they like to pick on one another, and who better to pick on than the girl with the animal name. As a result my Elementary years were filled with lots of “bock, bock, bock”s. That kind of teasing can do wondrous things for an eight year old’s self esteem.

Next, in middle school, I had already learned two lessons: 1. Don’t chose a name that is associated with a specific culture which is not your own, and 2. Don’t chose a name that is also the name of an animal. Henny was a cute name that people could both pronounce and didn’t think twice about. Sure, I got a lot of “What does it mean?, Where does it come from?” from people, but other than that I was left alone when it came to my name.

And then we moved to Israel. Finally, I could be Hen (חן )the one that I was born as and not the animal of Elementary years) without worrying what people thought or said of me. For the first time in my life, I had someone in my class with the same name! I finally knew what it felt like to be Emily, John and Samantha.

I started to appreciate my name. I learned that it means Grace, Beauty, Charm and Fairness. I learned that it is an ancient name, from the time of the bible. I came to be proud of my name, of its history, of my nation’s history. I learned to love myself and my name in a way that I had previously thought impossible. All it took was the realization that I am not alone, that there are hundreds with the same name, that there are thousands who have chosen this name for their children, that millions of people can pronounce this name, in order for me to accept it.

Today, I love my name and am proud of it. Sure, my Starbucks order has not changed, and I am still Grace to all cashiers, but inside, I have learned to accept my name and in so I have learned to accept myself.

 

This is just one example of the important work produced YaLa’s citizen journalists, a program funded by the European Union’s Peacebuilding Initiative in order to enable young leaders from across the Middle East and North Africa to document and share their experiences of the region. 

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