Me llamo Meredith. I have called myself Meredith for 18 years. I have never shortened it. Occasionally in conversation or introductions, people asked me if I had a preferred nickname. The truth is that Meredith was my preferred name. Every shorter variation of my name did not feel like me.
Upon meeting my host family in Ecuador, it became evident that Meredith is not a common name here. In fact, it is almost impossible for most everyone to say. Two days after I arrived, I was in the car with my brother (Jesús, 36), mom (Edelina, 70), and niece (Heydi, 13). We were driving back from dinner at my grandmother’s house.
My brother and mom were speaking in a conversation that I would like to say I was tuned into, however, that would be (una mentira) a lie. By 9:00 pm my language brain was not even attempting to decode the rapid back and forth in the front seats. Suddenly Edelina exclaimed, “Wait, her name is not Marie!” Rolling her “r.”
My brother responded firm and serious, “No, it is Maraa-dit!”
A moment of confused silence and a skeptical, discontented grimace from my mother. “Marrie-?” She trailed off.
“No.” They went back and forth for a while since Jesús and I had established my name on a separate occasion.
“Can’t we shorten it? We can call her Mary.” I sat quietly observing the debate from the back seat.
“No, Mammi, it is very important to call people by their names. In English my name is Jesus, but I don’t want people calling me that. It is pronounced ‘Jesús’ (hay-SOOS). It is my name.”
Before I knew what I was saying, I interjected, “Marie is good. Esta bien. It’s okay. Meredith is a difficult name. We can shorten it. Podemos cortarlo. Some of my friends call me Mer, also.”
“Ok, Mer. Mer, Marie.”
In some ways it makes me feel more known here when it is not such an obvious strain on others to call me by my foreign, unfamiliar name. However, I also really appreciate the people who make an effort to slide through the letters of my name. To my sister (Vero, 35) I am “Meraditt.” To her daughter, my niece (Amy, 3), I am “muralie” or “Merely.” To my work supervisora after a month of practice I am also “Merely.”
Since that night, I have first told people my name is Meredith and then, “Me puede lamar Meri o Mer.” You can call me Meri or Mer.
My experience with my name in Ecuador feels like a symbol of my sometimes distorted identity — in portraying myself to others and even in reflecting internally. The way we speak and behave is so much a part of our identity. Expressing myself with my basic Spanish vocabulary and stumbling grammar in place of my usual carefully chosen words and subtle sense of humor in order to communicate can be really challenging some days. Anyone who has met me knows that I am a fairly quiet, contemplative, thoughtful, introspective individual. Anyone who knows me well also knows that I find it easiest to share my full self when I am comfortable and confident that I am being understood. As well as I know myself, I am challenged to understand my character and express it to the people around me through a lens of Spanish expression. Often it is not as easy as “just being myself,” because some days I don’t know how to do that in Spanish.
Curiously, one of my greatest challenges during this experience (and one of the most rewarding pieces) is not my adjusting to culture shock. I often feel my greatest challenge is connecting with mi familia Ecuadorana and my coworkers mis companeros. I thought there may be something about the culture that was really hard for me to understand, or maybe I would have a really hard time adjusting to the food or the strict gender roles, or the religion. With all that is new in this culture, I have been so far most challenged to integrate into mi familia with the layered difficulty of language barriers and the complexity of cultural and family dynamics.
I am beginning to understand deeply how expression goes beyond words cross culturally and, on the other hand, how intrinsic language is to understanding a culture and its people fully. For example, familia has such a different meaning here than family does in the U.S.. I would like to write a separate blog about this topic sometime. There are also words and expressions that there simply are not translations for in English. Me cae bien and me llevo bien are two Spanish expressions I have grown to appreciate. The closest English translation would be I vibe well with someone upon meeting them and I get along with someone. There are phrases I use in Spanish that would seem rude if directly translated into English, but I am learning to let go of my English mindset and embrace a different manner of thinking and expressing myself.
Mi Nombre: A poem I wrote a long time ago about developing identity and reflections upon my first 3 weeks in Ecuador
“La Marie”- I hear mi nombre being tossed around the breakfast table downstairs abajo like the bowl of moté last Sunday night when we ate soup with the whole familia. They are talking about how late I am sleeping to catch up from baptism Fiesta (with a capital F) last night or how la Marie no puede bailar por nada (can’t dance for anything) —I am sure. My five blankets cobijas are warm like the Gualaceo morning sun is reflected off the bright pink walls of my room and the cafecito I smell wafting from the kitchen.
It’s “Mer” to my new coworkers at my apprenticeship with La Unidad Especial de Gualaceo. Which is one bus ride and a 20 minute walk at 6:45 in the morning after breakfast of a plate of rice arroz and cafecito. I arrive at the bus stop where I can see El Mercado and 1,2,3,4,5,6, siete cuadras (blocks) and una izquierda (left) at the cobblestone wall with a spray painted heart corazon on it.
Meredith- suave, ramidamente, conocido, when it rolls off the tongue of my family and my friends and everyone from the place I come from. Which is Los Estados Unidos in the state that is most northeastern by sobre Canada. And it is very cold and it snows BASTANTE a lot, but we have seasons estaciones too. And I am from Maine. Which is pronounced Maine. Maine. Maine. Which is not New York or part of New York or even very close to New York at all. It is about an 8-10 hour drive by car to New York. And the city I live in se llama Bangor. And I like it very much. And it is about the same size (tamaño) as Gualaceo, but it has less mountains montañas and the houses are un pocito mas cerca a little closer together. And it is almost fall el otoño there, which is my favorite season because the arbóles change color. And it is absolutely beautiful hermosa and it smells hermosa, and el aire the air is fresco fresh and feels hermosa.
Maraadit- The name that almost feels like mine. The name that most new acquaintances try at least once with a confused slow smile before resolving on Marie or Mer. The name that underscores my disoriented portrayal or self. The name that makes me and the people around me laugh as much as that time mi familia y yo me estuvimos riendo were laughing at me last weekend when we planted sembramos a vegetable garden un huerto and mi hermana sister joked that I should take care of the baby instead of my host niece Heydi so she could use my hoe and we would not be working until dinner la merienda.
I wish I remembered to write down every moment of laughter like this. These moments of alegre y risa happiness and laughter are the moments where I don’t question at all what I am doing with my life and I don’t feel the distance created by language barriers. I am so grateful for mi familia Ecuadorana, each and every single one of them.