My Byline Is a Lie
Fourteen years ago, I asked my father about my last name, “Rusli.” I wanted to know about its origin and if it was common in Indonesia, the country where my parents are from.
He wasn’t sure about the meaning, he said, half shrugging, but it didn’t matter. Rusli, he explained, wasn’t our family’s real last name. It was changed during the era of president Suharto, when the ethnic-Chinese were pushed to adopt “Indonesian-sounding” names.
“Li” became “Rusli,” obfuscating the oriental root.
A name is supposed to be fixed, absolute, an integral part of identity. For an obnoxious, know-it-all 16-year-old, the sudden subtraction of three letters was jarring. It was a reminder that I didn’t know everything, that even the most basic truths can be vulnerable.
I spent my childhood in New Jersey feverishly trying to blot out my Indonesian-ness, in a bid to feel less “other” and assimilate into American culture.
I resented my mother for cooking the food of her mother, laden with thick coconut milk, galangal and turmeric. I wedged myself into my friends’ dining tables, feasting on their American customs between plates of roasted meats and potatoes. I cried when my mother told me I could not have a bat mitzvah or attend the Solomon Schechter Day School and when a boy, who I thought liked me, tauntingly called me “Bruce Lee.” I tried to push away all the things that made my family seem “strange,” to achieve a sense of belonging.
My father’s disclosure made me realize how successful I had been — and how little I knew about my parents’ homeland.
I soon became obsessed with the notion of learning about the country and culture. So a few years later, when I was a 19-year-old college student, I hopped on a plane bound for Jakarta to be a freelancer for the New York Times. Over the next three years, up until graduation, I spent every winter and summer with my mentors, Jane Perlez and Raymond Bonner, to make up for lost time. We crisscrossed the archipelago, talking to villagers about the nation’s first free presidential elections and listening to the harrowing tales of orphans whose families perished in the 2004 tsunami. In my father’s hometown, I held the deeply lined hands of my grandmother as I learned about her ancestors who bound their feet and the quirky superstitions of this land.
I fell in love with my parents’ country and the profession.
All that my career has been, I can trace to that time.
It solidified my desire to be a journalist, eventually leading me to work full time for the Times and later the Wall Street Journal, where I’ve been a technology reporter since 2012. It convinced me of the importance of this work, the necessity of doing all that I could to collect the fragments of stories. My byline, “Evelyn M. Rusli,” my not-quite-real name, was a symbolic reminder, pushing me to search for less obvious truths, to embrace the grey areas and, perhaps most importantly, to never assume that I had all the facts.
Lately, however, I’ve realized that I wasn’t properly applying that lens to my own life.
When I was 19, I thought I was going to spend my entire life as a journalist, and that became another fixed truth, blinding me to alternatives. As my career progressed, I kept a white-knuckled grasp on this romantic notion of myself — a girl who found her passion as a teen and would spend her entire life devoted to it. The mere thought of trying something new threatened this identity and made me feel fraudulent.
But as I’ve grown older, I’ve come to embrace evolving narratives. Change doesn’t discredit past narratives, it just gives us room to grow and prevents us from standing still.
This year, I realized that as much as I still love journalism, I am hungry for a different challenge and the chance to apply a new skill set. I am hungry for every day, every effort to build towards something big, a singular movement.
I am under no illusion that I’ve learned everything from this profession — this is not a “drop the mic” moment. And I am not completely giving up on writing, though I will write less frequently and more personally than I have in the past.
But I’m hungry to be terrified.
So after an inspiring decade, I am stepping away from journalism. I feel grateful for all that I have learned, everyone that I have met and all the ways journalism has shaped my life and character.
I am leaving to start a company (I know, I’m a San Francisco cliche). I’m not ready to disclose plans yet, so I’ll just say, in editor parlance, “more TK.” Only time will tell if this ends in happiness or a pool of tears — hopefully both. The not-knowing of course is part of the fun.
It’s time to let go of the byline as I know it.
Recently, during a brief trip home, I prodded my father to tell me more about his family and his family’s family, urging him to stretch back as far as he could go. He sighed. He lacked some basic details to sketch the family tree. But he said based on the spelling and pronunciation of our last name in Chinese, we were likely descendants of a Chinese general.
“Li — L-I- right? A truncation of Rusli?” I said.
“No.” He smiled. “L-I-E. Lie.”
Special thanks to Daniel Gruneberg, Om Malik, Ross Schneiderman, Ashley Mayer, Scott Austin for their feedback here, and thank you to my family — especially Ray and Jane for your love, support and for taking a chance on the overeager, awkward teen that you met for tea at the Algonquin so many years ago.