Essay

What’s In A Name?

I was supposed to be a boy. If all had gone as planned, I would have been named Mads Emil, a name which my parents had settled on after much deliberation before my arrival. Somehow, the fact that I wasn’t a Mads Emil (I often remind them that the odds were always fifty-fifty) came as a shock to them, and they had to think on their feet. Within hours, they settled on Mai Amalie. The first part of my name is an alternative spelling of the Danish word for May, because my parents are Danish and were married in May. “Amalie” was added because giving children double names was very on trend in mid-90s Copenhagen. I was christened Mai Amalie Kragerup Bak, which, in Denmark, is unique enough to make my parents seem a little edgy, but is still recognizable and, above all, pronounceable. Then, mere days after I entered the world, my parents decided to move our family abroad, and little Mai Amalie Kragerup Bak has had a lot of explaining to do in the twenty-one years since.

I grew up hating my name. It wasn’t so bad when I was very young, living in the Netherlands, because Dutch and Danish are quite similar. The real trouble came when my family moved to California when I was five. I had a rough start, mainly, if not entirely, due to the fact that my loving but incredibly laissez-faire parents decided to enroll me in public school, despite my not knowing a single word of English beyond “hi” (and that’s only because it’s the same in Danish). After a few months, I learned English, but was left with high anxiety in social situations, and I was hopelessly shy for most of my childhood and early teenage years.

My parents and family have always called me “Mai Amalie,” but trying to get an American to pronounce “Amalie” just isn’t a battle worth fighting. Although “Mai” is certainly more straightforward, it still stood out in yearbooks among the Katies and Maddies of my grade school classes. Not ideal for a young girl whose wish above all else was to blend in, not stand out. Over the years, I’ve seen my name spelled every which way it could possibly be phonetically feasible. I had a sixth grade teacher for an entire year, who I eventually just had to give up on reminding that my name isn’t Mia. I understand that foreign names can be difficult to wrap your head around, but I also feel I could argue that a society with no less than thirty different ways to spell Caitlin really doesn’t have a leg to stand on in that department.

My younger sister and brother are named Laura and Oliver, respectively, because by the time they came around, my parents had figured out that universally pronounceable names were going to have to be a priority. So, even in my own family, I was an anomaly. My mom once told me that when she was young, she always imagined that if she ever had a daughter, she would name her Anne Sofie, to carry on the tradition of the oldest daughter in her family having the first name Anne (Her mom is Anne Grethe; she, herself, is Anne Birgitte). I asked her, as nicely as I could manage, why on earth she would possibly choose my name instead. She smiled at me and said that I’m not an Anne Sofie; my name has more meaning behind it, which is what makes it special. It was not comforting.

We moved back to Denmark when I was fifteen, and I lived there for three years before coming to Oregon. It was nice to finally live in a place where introducing myself wasn’t always followed by “Huh?” Here, I still often experience some initial confusion when I tell people my name. In that sense, it’d probably be easier to be an Anne. But I’ve come to realize and appreciate that what the Annes in the world don’t have in their name is the peculiarity that prompts people to inquire further, to wonder what the story is. I have a whole hell of a lot of story in my name, and others’ curiosity in where it comes from has led to some great conversations and opportunities to connect. Still, I have to say, one of the most awesome moments of my life happened on the day my sister brought home a new friend from school in Denmark; her name was Mai Amalie.

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