Monday, March 21, 2011

What´s in a name?


Would a Penny by any other name be as sweet?
I guess it´s time to come clean and admit it.  I have a double identity.  In Nicaragua, I am not the same Penny that you may know and love (or not – hey, you may just like my blog).  For the past two years, I have carried out my life in another language and even used an alias.  I have denied parts of my personality and changed my mannerisms in order to fit in with the local culture.  In many ways, I lead a double life.  Now, as dramatic as this may sound, it’s not my first time doing this.  When I studied abroad in Spain, I experienced living in another culture for the first time, and I had to make myself understood (my personality, my nuances, my desires, etc.) in a new and foreign language.  I believe that everyone undergoes a bit of a personality change when they speak another language.  While Spanish is almost second-nature to me now, there will always be differences in what is expressed.  I have been less outgoing here, more hesitant, more willing to watch and wait rather than act first.  However, this has brought its own benefits, and by changing myself a little bit, I have learned more about Nicaragua and my own personality.
One part of my double identity however that took some time for me to get used to has been my alias – yes, I use a different name here in Peace Corps.  It wasn’t always this way – during training I tried to use “Penny,” but was met with difficulty.  It was hard for rural Nicaraguans to wrap their tongues around the foreign word – it always ended up vaguely sounding like the Spanish word pene, (pronounced pay-nay) which is their word for the male reproductive organ.  Yes, snicker all you want, I’m used to it.
I never had this same pronunciation problem in Spain – Spaniards were able to say my name just fine, often recalling the famous Beatles song “Penny Lane.”  I think that in comparison to Spaniards, Nicaraguans are less used to pronouncing foreign words and have little experience with English.  The Peace Corps language facilitators suggested that I choose a different name to go by during my service.  First we tried Penelope; it was also too hard for most to pronounce.  I considered going by “Katy” since my middle name is Kathleen, but there were too many Katies, Kats, and Catherines in Peace Corps and it would have been confusing.  I ended up choosing to use the Spanish name I had picked in high school Spanish class.  It’s a tradition in most high school language courses to choose a name to go by in class in that language.  I imagine teachers believed it helped students get into the feeling of being and speaking the language, immersing oneself into español  as much as possible in an American classroom.  Most kids picked funny names like Margarita or Nacho.  I had looked at the list of Spanish names in the back of our textbook and chosen the “L” name (one of my favorite letters) that I liked the best: Lilia. 
So, it was settled.  I would go by Lilia.  After four years of high school use in the classroom, I already automatically turned around whenever I heard someone say it and was used to writing it down.   Simple enough, right?  Nicaraguans should have no trouble with it.  Wrong.  Even this “Spanish” name was hard to pronounce – they wanted to turn it into “Lilian” or even “Liliam.”  Teaching people how to pronounce Lilia probably took me just as much time as it would have for them to learn how to say “Penny” correctly… but, at this point, a few weeks into my service with introductions already made; it was too late to turn back.  I was christened Lilia/Lilian/Liliam whether I liked it or not.
It took a while to get used to going by a different name – after a lifetime of being known as Penny/Pen/P-nut/Pizzle/Piz/and even Pennykins, it was like that was all a different world.  It made the process of integration into culture here and learning the local Spanish slang and way of speaking that much more intense and all-encompassing.  Sometimes I wouldn’t respond when someone would call “Lilia”, I often wrote my name down as Penny, confusing co-workers and messing up attendance lists.  My Peace Corps supervisors who had originally met me as Penny had to get used to calling me Lilia, at least when in the presence of my Nicaraguan counterparts.  It was like I had a completely different identity “in-site.”  I behaved differently (always muting my actions and personality at first to fit in and please others), I was without peers my age to be friends with, I was speaking a foreign language, and using a different name.  This must be what people in the Witness Protection Program go through a little bit, I remember thinking.
Whenever I left my site, or was talking with other volunteers, or even in my online Facebook life – I returned to being “Penny.”  It was like putting a favorite sweater on – it felt comfortable and familiar.  Lilia was still awkward and I was unsure who I wanted her to be.  I always felt like I wanted her to be the perfect Peace Corps volunteer: always be culturally sensitive, be liked by everyone, and avoid political frictions.  This was of course not possible as I learned later on in my service, and eventually accepted.
The other Peace Corps volunteer that lives in my site, Kristen, had trouble with the Lilia/Penny distinction.  She called me both names interchangeably, and we often confused others when we talked in the company of other Peace Corps volunteers.  “Who’s Lilia?” they would ask.  I will maintain a friendship with Kristen for my entire life – we have experience bonding under extreme conditions during the past two years.  I wonder if she’ll ever slip up in the future and call me “Lilia” by accident when we’re back in the U.S.
Many Peace Corps volunteers use the phrase, “Out of sight, out of mind” but change the word “sight” to “site” to describe the feeling they have when they leave their assigned Peace Corps community (or “site”) to come to the big city for a medical appointment, to go shopping or banking, or just to hang out with other volunteers and speak English.  They use this phrase because the minute you leave your village, part of you immediately forgets about your life in-site and your work.  It’s a stress mechanism I believe – our bodies are so exhausted mentally and physically in-site that whenever we leave, there is a little feeling of relief, of relaxation.  We are finally “off-duty” from our 24/7 lives as Peace Corps volunteers – we are out of the fishbowl (or at least in a larger fishbowl where we don’t stick out as much!)  Towards the beginning of my service, it was hard for me to leave site and leave “Lilia” behind – was it like that part of me didn’t exist anymore?  Will it still exist after I leave Nicaragua, or just in the minds of people who knew me as that person? 
After 26 months here, 23 of them being spent as “Lilia,” I can now go fluidly between the two names/identities.  I’m not sure where Penny ends and Lilia begins.  I’m not sure how much of Lilia I will bring back with me to the U.S. – how will Lilia have changed how Penny behaves?  Having an alias here has changed how I think about my experience – it wasn’t just two years living in another country, it was a completely different life I led here.  I’ve changed – going back home I won’t be the same person who left, but I won’t be the person that I was here in Nicaragua either.  I can just see a future Peace Corps volunteer coming to my town asking about that volunteer who was here 2009-2011, “Did you know Penny?” they might ask.  “Penny?” people will respond, “Never heard of her.  There was this one blonde girl named Lilia though…Let me tell you about her.”

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