Search for Selfhood

The word by which I am identified. My name — Jennifer Li Howard — has never tickled my fancy. I never felt a real connection to it. Truthfully, I don’t think my parents did either, particularly my mother. My mother wanted something Victorian-sounding, like Elizabeth Rose. My father opted for something like Susannah or Yolanda or Gwendolynn, in which case I would have to go by Suzie or Yolie or Gwen. Alas, they went with Jennifer Li, despite several read throughs of the baby-naming book Beyond Jennifer and Jason. (For the record, my brother is named Richard, which is only a notch above Jason on the boring scale).

My parents were a bizarre pairing from the start. My father was a UCLA graduate with a masters degree in mechanical engineering; my mother, a waitress with beachy hair who grew up in a broken home. Despite the abnormalities, their story was a love story nonetheless. He was a regular at her restaurant (His order? Ship Shape Burger with fries and coffee. Sometimes the deep dish apple pie a la mode). She had hazel green flicker-eyes and could’ve gotten together with anyone she wanted. He made sure to always arrive during her shift, and she always made sure to wait on him. They got married. They had two children. They divorced. They continued living together. They got different boyfriends and girlfriends (family dinners were awkward). My mother had big dreams but never the motivation to start any of them. My father was a conservative hard-working man who made good money.

Mother and Father had high hopes for us kids. They wanted us to be successful (in whatever way we defined success). They always made sure we were well-educated. As soon as we started asking about sex, they told us. They taught us the value of a dollar. They taught us how to read maps, use the stars as a compass, book flights. They never said no to a book or a trip to the museum.

My father was immensely disappointed that my brother didn’t receive his high school diploma and refused to attend even community college. Nevertheless, my father is forever encouraging of my brother’s ability to learn language until fluency and his capability of composing masterpieces of music. (My father is a bit tired of Richie’s pot-smoking habits, but lets him do it).

My parents were happy to send me across the country — it’s for higher education. My father encouraged me to be a self-sufficient lady (although I’d never call him a feminist). My mother likes my updates because she gets to live by proxy of my stories. Freakonomics, of all things, can explain this further:

“The underlying point of everything we’ve ever written about baby names is that the name is essentially the parents’ signal to the world of what they think of their kid — whether it’s a signal of tradition, religion, aspiration, affiliation, or whatnot.”

Andbutso, I received a NORMAL name. Jennifer. No wispy frills. Cut-to-the-chase.

hi,doyouspeak?

In the winter of my tenth year, my father drunkenly confessed that I was named after a girl he had a crush on who was not my mother and who lived in New York or Pennsylvania or Delaware. (Truthfully, I don’t really care that I was named after some girl my father like liked. I just wished my name could be a teeny bit more elaborate.) He wanted to take me to go meet her (is what he said). I said okay, but mostly because I wanted to get some traveling under my belt. We never went.

I remember the first day of kindergarten, at the seasoned old age of five years. Mrs. Mikolajczak had our names printed out on the desk at which we were determined to sit. The letters were made of dash-lines, that way us kids could practice writing the thing we’d write on countless documents for the rest of our lives. The bee-line marks on mine formed the letters J-E-N-N-Y.

The slightest bit more beautiful than Jennifer, Jenny expressed a kickshaw innocence. I was too afraid to speak to anyone that wasn’t my parents or brother (until I was seven years old). People questioned if I had a voice. In retrospect, I can’t believe my parents weren’t more concerned. I literally did not speak in the presence of others. When my parents’ life-long friends came over, when my uncle visited, when my cousin said hello, I would just stare. I’m positive my teachers brought up my silence to my parents via concerned telephone calls.

They must have been worried. But they let me remain silent, and for that, I am eternally grateful. I was a late bloomer in all aspects (I lost my last baby tooth in ninth grade), and I thank my parents for letting me mature as slowly as I needed.

I couldn’t accurately reflect my name. I wasn’t normal. I wasn’t put-together. (The private Christian school I attended until fourth grade required uniforms . My navy skirts were always on backwards and there was always a stain on my white polo. My hair was tangled in curls all day, and I always had raspberry jam dribbled down my chin).

“[A] child’s first name isn’t nearly as influential on that child’s outcome as many people would like to think.That said, it would be a mistake to say that a name is unimportant — especially because even the belief that a name is important can make it, on some level, actually important. Also: a name can carry far greater significance than as a mere label for an individual person; it can say something about you as a member of a tribe, a community, a nation.”

Suffice to say, society regards names highly. The words by which we identify the self (who is it we mean when we speak the words I or me?) are peculiar things. We expect that we are our names. But perhaps we must flip the scripts such that our names are us.

whichone?

That year, when we learned about syllables, I was jealous that my name was a mere and lousy two claps compared to my friend Ga-bri-ell-a’s.

I was so jealous of my parents’ names. My mother, Tara Li Hwangbo or Tara Li Chang (depending on when you met her) had bizarre letters smashed together which I so fondly adored. My father, Claudio-Alonso Scott Howard (which is a perfect 50/50 mash up of his Peruvian mother and French father) not only had two first names, but his initials spell out CASH. Mine incidentally spell out JLH — the sound of the visceral reaction I always had when contemplating my name.

Desperately, I wanted to change my name. In the Barbie doll days tinged with pink princesses, I thought I could pull off Alexandria Diamond. Years of watching The Amanda Show convinced me that if only I could change my name to Amanda, I, too, could have my own show.

I was so jealous of the pretty sounds shouted across the playground and written on homework assignments. There was Nioka, Sarahi (who went by Sari), L’Oreal, Shelby, Angela, Jasmine, Daysha, Estrella. All of which I was sure were better than Jenny. Also, there were at least five other Jennys or Jennifers at my school of less than 200 kids. Every time someone said, “Jennifer?” the collective group had to ask, “Which one?” Because it could have been -Howard, -Guidi, -Gutierrez, -Cervantes, -Rocha, or -Martinez. The number of humans that shared my name made me feel like zilch. Like I was “[z]ero, less than that. I’m the member of a club that I don’t want to belong to. You know, it’s just like boring”.

Shows like Recess really glorified sharing a name with others. The Ashleys were all such good friends and had an instant camaraderie (oooh! Scandalous!) I, however, was part of an underground clique that I wanted no part of. Couldn’t I change my name?

Please Daddy?
Why sweetheart?
Ugggghhh it’s so boring.
Jennifer is great name. Simple. Elegant.

secretplaces,secretnames.

My father was a vagabond for a long time. His choice. He took off when he was twenty-three and rode his bike across America. He’s scaled waterfalls, hiked canyons, crossed borders. I grew up with his wanderlust words told as bedtime stories. His memories became my aspirations.

I dreamt of going places as much as I dreamt of changing my name. Maybe I could be named China or India or Kansas or London or Alyeska or Korea. When I was seven I memorized the capital cities of all the states and several countries. Iceland? Reykjavik. I could be named Iceland except it would be spelled Islynn. Or maybe I’d be Reykjavik and go by Rey, and then I’d be Baby Rey, like the barbecue sauce. Even better, I could be Reykjavik Islynn.

I couldn’t, of course, change my name. So I did the next best thing. When I went on to grade four I started going by Jen, just for a change of pace. In fifth grade when I switched schools, I was too afraid to say my nickname, so everyone called me the way the teacher did, which was what was on the roll call sheet. Jennifer.

In sixth grade I was obsessed with the song Lola by The Kinks (Lo-lo-lo-lo-lo-looolahhh). In Spanish class with Miss Mendoza, we got to choose our Latino names. Obviously, I became Senorita Lolita.

The summer before seventh grade was spent watching and rewatching Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen (and Hannah Montana). I, subsequently became obsessed with secret identities. On the first day of seventh grade, I told my homeroom teacher Mrs. Fennel to pretty-please ignore whatever was on the roll-call; my name is actually Lola, and please don’t refer to me otherwise. She smiled.

Lola?
Yes, I said. L-O-L-A.
That’s pretty, I like it.
Thank you.

To this day, Jason Wagner still calls me by my alias.

it’s a mixed up, muddled up, shook up world,
except for Lola.

jenny.

Nowadays, I always introduce myself as Jenny. (Yes, I’ve heard all the song references). But at cheer they call me Jen Jen and those who are absurdly comfortable with me call me Jen, because things always get shortened. Or, maybe I shouldn’t say always. There’s, like, three people in the entire universe that call me by my full name. Alex calls me Jennifer and I call him Alejandro, unless we need to tell each other something serious, then we use our “introductory names” — Alex and Jenny. (I swear to God though, my full name rolls off his tongue so beautifully and I always blush when he telephones me).

“Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself. Until I can accept it as legitimate. . . I cannot accept the legitimacy of myself.”

Do I blush because I am embarrassed of how harsh sounding the letters are? Oh, how jealous I am that Alejandro makes it elegant. I must find the gorgeous intricacies of language, and I must uncover the pulchritude in the hairpin curves of the letters that tell me who I am. I can never be boundless until that task is checked.

allwrappedup.

My mother calls me Genevieve, still striving for the old school feel. I love when her voice sings, “Gen-ahhh-veeve!!!” As of recent she’s been calling me Dot — short for daughter. Rare is it that I am beckoned by Jenny or Jen or Jennifer. Also as of recent, I’ve been starting to maybe sorta-kinda like my name. (?) Jenny. I can’t help but feel like I am betraying her when I introduce myself to people.

Hi, um. I’m, uh, Jenny.

Her daughter was named after her now ex-husband’s long lost girlfriend, and I used to feel like I was perpetuating this with meeting people. But slowly, the ums and uhs fade away.

Hi, I’m Jenny.

I like my name, maybe love it a little bit, perhaps feel too content when I hear it play through speakers. And even though I gain confidence in my identity, I wonder what my mother thinks:

“But a guilt sparks, flickers, then flares up in him. He cannot help feeling that he is rejecting the attractions of family life. (There is no logic here, only the great logic of the heart)”

Sometimes, I wonder how my name looks in people’s list of contacts. Do they include the detail of where we met in parenthesis? Jenny (coffee shop)? I wonder if they include my last name because they already have three other Jennys in their phone. I wonder how often my name is misspelled, missing an n, or dropping the y for an i.

My name is not unique in any sense of the word, but maybe, my identity is. Perhaps, the story of the self that is tied to my name provokes something unprecedented, some untold words that only this Jenny in this universe in this body can tell. I am not my name. My name transcends from me. The letters no longer need to be spoken with columbine delicacy; rather, they can be formed from upturned lips with winsome esteem.

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