We throw around our names so lightly and frequently that we become immune to what they represent. During frosh week especially, it’s easy to feel like you’re drowning in a sea of introductions. I’ve literally had conversations with people over the past week that have consisted only of the following:
Random Freshman: “Hi, what’s your name?”
Random Freshman: “I’m Katie.”
Me: “What college are you in?”
Random Freshman: “Butler.”
Me: “Oh, cool. I’m in Forbes.
Sorry, what’s your name again?”
Random Freshman: “Katie.”
Me: “Okay, sorry. I’m Alex.”
The names of most of the people I’ve met have rolled off my memory like water. But introducing myself over and over, hearing my own name repeated so many times, has reminded me of what names are supposed to represent. Names are all origins, and if understood in context, they can tell a story: about your heritage, your nationality, or where you were born. That list may sound like synonyms for the same thing, but for me, they’re all different. As such, the story behind my name can get a little complex.
When I tell people my name, people often ask if I’m named after the city, or, if they’re particularly bookish, the library. I’m actually named after neither. For a long time before I was born, my mother couldn’t figure out what to name me. She really liked Caitlin as a middle name, but had no idea what would be good for my actual name. For a while she considered giving up on finding a different name entirely and just calling me ‘Caitlin Caitlin Herr.’ She told this idea to my grandmother, who cheerfully replied: “Well, there’s Boutros Boutros Ghali, so why not Caitlin Caitlin Herr!” My mom promptly decided that maybe Caitlin wasn’t such a good name after all (no offense to Boutros Boutros, I’m sure). So, one day about a month before I was due, still with no baby name in mind, my parents took a walk along the docks. They were living in D.C. at the time, and they enjoyed walking along the water at night and looking at all the boats in the harbor. As they were walking this particular night, my dad noticed a boat named ‘Alexandria’. As he was walking and noticing, he thought to himself: “Alexandria. That’s a great name.” And thus, to those of you that have asked: No, I’m not named after the city or the great ancient library. I’m named after a boat (which, in an unfortunate twist of fate, sunk only a few weeks later. Let’s just hope that’s not an omen).
Of my three names, though, the one that’s probably the most essential to my identity (as much as a name can be), is my last. I come from Minnesota, probably one of the most culturally homogeneous states in the already whitewashed Midwest. Most of my friends had lived in my town, Edina, their whole life. Many of their parents had similarly grown up in the Edina bubble, attending the same high school that we did forty-some years later. Growing up, I knew three Andersons, two Smiths, a few Lindhals or Lindquists, and a couple Johnsons and Thompsons. My last name, Herr, isn’t exactly exotic, but it still sticks out slightly among the crowd of typical Minnesotan surnames.
Herr (pronounced “her”) is of German origin. It’s just as strange a name in German, though, as it is in English; Herr, in German, means ‘Mister’. So, when my dad is in Germany, people might address him as ‘Herr Herr,’ or, ‘Mister Mister,’ and my mother would be ‘Frau Herr,’ or, ‘Mrs. Mister’.
I inherited the name Herr from my dad, who in turn got it from my Opa. My Opa is a Swiss-German. He comes from Herisau, which is in the canton of Appenzell. For contextual reference: in Appenzell, they still practice a form of direct democracy called ‘Landsgemeinde,’ in which all of the citizens of the canton gather on a given day to vote on every law. You still need to own a sword in order to be able to vote, and women weren’t allowed to vote on local issues in Appenzell until 1991(and even then it was by order of the Swiss federal government). In other words, Appenzell is one of the most culturally conservative Swiss cantons.
My Opa left home to work when he turned 18, got a job in the hotel industry, and some time later met my Oma, an American from New Jersey. My father and his siblings grew up for the most part in Germany, and though they learned English first, their primary language at home was German. My dad spent most of his childhood in Munich, and considers himself Bavarian; he even used to speak with a thick regional accent when he was younger. His two passports, however, read American and Swiss, and despite his Bavarian pride, he isn’t a German citizen.
National identity gets even more mixed up moving down the generations in my family line. Take my little cousin Ferdinand, for example. His mother is Czech and French. His father is Swiss and American. He’s growing up in Berlin, and attends an American preschool. He speaks French with his mom, German with his dad, and English at school. He’s only five years old and he still can’t sort out all the different languages; at times, he’ll take words from each one to form a single sentence. My own relationship with nationality isn’t as confusing as little Ferdinand’s, but it’s definitely something that I’ve spent time thinking about. I have two passports: American and Swiss. Most of my extended family lives in Germany. I lived with my family in England for a period, so when we moved to Minnesota in first grade I was known as ‘the English girl,’ and spoke with a British accent. Having attended a French immersion school for first through fifth grade, I speak fluent French but very poor German. This last fact has always been especially confusing for me; I’ve found that I feel more at home in France, where I have no ancestral ties but can communicate freely and without accent, than in Germany or Switzerland, where even though I have family connections and a citizenship, I am deemed a tourist as soon as I open my mouth.
The other day I was scrolling through my Facebook timeline and I saw a link somebody had posted to an article called ‘31 Signs You’re A Third Culture Kid.’ I had never heard the term before, so I clicked on it and started to read through. It was one of those lists that has an attribute of some particular group for each number followed by some humorous .gif image that represents that attribute. Included at the beginning of the article was sociologist David C. Pollock’s definition of a third culture kid: “A Third Culture Kid (TKC) is a person who has spent a significant part of his or her developmental years outside the parent’s culture. The TKC frequently builds relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership of any.” I only spent a total of two years actually living outside of the United States, so I don’t know how much I technically could be classified as a ‘TKC’, but I definitely related to the second part of the definition. Though I do consider myself an American, my national and cultural identity is far too complex to be expressed as simply ‘American,’ or even just ‘Swiss-American.’
One thing that’s struck me about Princeton even just this first week is how diverse the student body really is. I know that ‘diversity’ is one of those annoying buzzwords that everyone loves to use in college brochures, but being on campus these past few days has really made it tangible. My zee group alone includes students who are bilingual, trilingual, come from binational families, or have spent a significant part of their lives living overseas. Coming from Minnesota, it’s a real revelation for me to find so many other kids that come from mixed national backgrounds.
In a way, my name is a reminder; it’s a reminder that I am Swiss, it’s a reminder that I still don’t speak German, but most of all it’s a reminder that American (or Swiss or German or French or English or whatever) is not all that I am. My complex nationality doesn’t define me; it composes me in a way that’s just as inextricable from the rest of me as my family name.