30 November 2014

Call me nobody

Should I change my family name or not?

I always had to bear – and explain how to pronounce – that complicated name of mine, “Trzciński”, transmitted along the patriarchal line. Little by little, it became part of my identity. Don’t most of us feel over time that our names, our first names at least, really match with our personalities, in an inseparable way, as if any other name would appear awkward? In my case, there may even have been a little pride in having a fairly unique and complicated family name, very different from peers at school, in whichever country I studied in – the pride of someone with multiple cultural origins, as if it were a source of richness, which it can be if one becomes more open to others.

Sebastian on the west coast in France

But here’s the catch: that family name is tightly connected to my male genitor. Having witnessed some amount of violence during my childhood for which I'm still half-waiting for a sincere apology and which is probably still affecting me today, I felt compelled to adjoin my mother’s maiden name – ”Clément” – to my own name. I can’t remember exactly when I operated that unofficial change; it was certainly after “he” was instructed by court order to leave the family house.

Here am I today: half of my life has now been spent using that longer double family name. It made its way in most administrative documents, including info some official ones like my passport where I was able to add a note about the regular family name I use. I had indeed discovered that nothing prevented anyone, in France at least, to go by whatever name or nickname one decided for oneself, as long as official transcripts were still using birth names.

Should I today drop my official family name and only keep my mother’s maiden name, as my brothers have done? I would no longer have to explain the origins of a complicated name; and I’ve always felt more French – having mostly lived in France and knowing its culture and history better – than Polish, the Polish side of the family having almost completely rooted itself out of my life. I would no longer have to feel a little sad and ashamed that almost no one knows how to spell my last name, let alone pronounce it correctly (Frenchmen don’t even know how to spell my first name correctly, that’s saying something). I would even perhaps no longer be discriminated (I never had proof of that but studies are univocal). I would no longer have to be reminded of a particularly unpleasant past.

The past itself however doesn’t go away with a symbolic name change. The pain neither. Yes, I should accept my past – and be able to move on to focus on the present, on what needs to still be healed. While I try not to attach much value to symbols, I’m inevitably sensitive to something intrinsically linked to my identity and self-image. Maybe that explains why I would have people just use my first name, stripping out my family name altogether. I also tend to present myself as “Sebastian with a complicated last name” to make people laugh (and make fun of me). Despite its own length, my first name has rarely been shortened or replaced by a nickname – so I grew all the more fond of it. Is it a surprise then that my Google+ link is only made up of my first name?

One of my brothers recently went a step further in changing his family name, since our generation falls out of scope of a recent law that makes it easier for children to pick their family name among the names carried by their parents. After two years of process, he finally got his request accepted to officially change his – patriarchal – family name to my mother’s maiden name only. My other brother is going to follow suit. My sister doesn’t really care, as she would most likely pick up her future husband’s name (and she’s anyway too disorganised regarding administrative stuff, however much of a genius she is <3 – I know other people like that).

So I mulled over what I should do myself. One day I manage to convince myself to request the official switch. Another day I think the opposite, both for a question of identity, feeling it’s too late now in my life to change things, and for a question of practical consequences. For instance, I don’t trust administrations across the multiple countries I have worked and lived in to be able to correctly match my records when I’ll collect benefits or request personal data; and I wouldn’t be surprised that immigration officials would be more suspicious of people changing names, the Indian visa agency asking that specific question for example.

Oh well, I guess I’m not ready to make this complete name switch today. Until I change my mind again. You know what? Simply call me Sebastian.