[NONFICTION] Both Names
My name is Elizabeth, which means “God’s Oath” in Hebrew. It means I speak the truth. It means God can swear by me. I am named Elizabeth after my father’s mother, after my father’s mother’s mother, and so on. It is a family name, a queen’s name. It is Anglo. It is Western. It is White. Like my father.
I can’t remember exactly when I began to notice that my father and mother did not pronounce my name the same way. That my neighbors, teachers, classmates pronounced my name the same way as my father, and therefore correctly. Therefore, my mother’s pronunciation was wrong.
I can’t remember exactly when I began to notice that I was different. That I was different because of my mother.
* * *
I am four. I am waiting for her to pick me up from preschool. Some of the children sit in circles on the grass in the front yard. But I prefer to wait on the porch, where all the lunchboxes are stacked in a row along the banister. I lift each lunchbox, one by one, and look at the lids: Sesame Street… Star Wars… Strawberry Shortcake… Transformers… Jem. I carefully select the lunchbox to hold while I sit on the steps of the porch and wait. Not because I don’t care for my own lunchbox, which is Cabbage Patch. I just want to hold something new, to pretend to be someone else. When my mother arrives, I return the borrowed lunchbox and retrieve my own. No one ever seems to mind. Or I never get caught. My mother is usually the first to arrive, and she hurries me into the car without lingering for a few minutes to have a quick chat with the other mothers.
“Goodbye, Elizabeth! Goodbye, Mrs. Brina!” the teacher says.
My mother nods and bows.
One afternoon, when she picks me up from preschool, I notice she has changed. She has gotten a haircut. She used to have hair flowing down to her waist like water. She used to brush it a hundred times, twist it in a coil, tie it in a knot on top of her head, and then hold it in place with a wooden pin. I see her step out of the car with her new hair, chopped above her shoulders, blow-dried, curled, sprayed. She smiles and her smile immediately fades. That was her most beautiful part. Her only beautiful part. I shake my head. This isn’t how my mother is supposed to look. This isn’t how women who look like my mother are supposed to look.
Nice try, Mom. She is still different. She can’t really change.
When my father comes home from work that day, I ask him if he likes her new hair and he says yes, of course, he likes it if my mother likes it. But I know that means he doesn’t. All three of us know that means he doesn’t.
I don’t know what I expect from her, what I want. I think I just want her to be… American. A white American. Whatever I believe that is.
My mother saves her hair in a bright red box, where she also saves a pair of the first socks she knitted for me and the wristband I wore at the hospital on the day I was born.
* * *
When I was a child, my mother called me “baby” instead of my name. As I got older, I asked her to stop. I was still very young, but I wasn’t a baby anymore.
I remember sitting in the middle of the backseat as she drives me home, as we pass by the freshly cleared fields of corn and newly constructed houses. I can see the in-ground pools in their backyards through the windshield.
I ask her to say my name, again and again. I ask her to say it, and each time she says it, I laugh. Each time she says it, I laugh, until she realizes I am mocking her. I can see the corners of her mouth tighten and turn down through the rearview mirror. I didn’t mean to hurt her. Or maybe I did.
Erizabesu… Erizabesu… is how she pronounces it.
When I was a child, my mother pronounced my name Erizabesu because the English sounds were unfamiliar, uncomfortable to her. The textures were off. Because she had to concentrate just a breath of a second longer.
As a child, I made fun of the way she said it. My friends made fun of the way she said it. My friends’ parents made fun of the way she said it. We thought it was her fault.
When I asked my father why I didn’t have a Japanese name, that is, a name my mother could pronounce, which I would never dare ask, he answered that he wanted to name me ‘Elizabeth’ after his mother, after his mother’s mother, and so on. ‘Elizabeth’ is a family name, a queen’s name. My mother, of course, agreed.
But I wonder, could she honestly have objected? How could she have known how the name would sound to me? That the name would sound like marbles in her mouth, that the [l] and the [th] would get stuck in her cheeks?
My middle name, however, is ‘Miki,’ which means “tree” or “destiny” or “story” or “beautiful princess” in Japanese, depending on how it is written.
The last definition is the one they chose for me, though not the one I would have chosen for myself. I suppose that is how my parents intended to raise me, as their princess. That is the promise my father represented when he sat on a stool at the bar, in a nightclub called the Blue Diamond, wearing an officer’s uniform, flashing crisp five-dollar bills, smiling with straight white teeth, ordering drinks in a language she’s heard in songs and movies all her life. Perhaps to someone who grew up living in a tin-roofed shack, eating sweet potatoes her family planted and rations the military provided, he must have seemed like royalty.
* * *
When I am thirteen, I decide that ‘Elizabeth’ is a common, ordinary name. I decide that I no longer want to be common and ordinary. Or rather, it is decided for me. I insist that my friends call me by my middle name, ‘Miki.’ But the new name doesn’t catch. My friends know me as ‘Elizabeth,’ as ‘Liz,’ as quiet and unassuming and eager to impress.
At that age, friends don’t let you change so easily.
It is ironic that I insist on being called a Japanese name but that I also insist on bleaching my hair blonde and wearing fake, dark-rimmed glasses that hide the shape of my eyes and lack of bridge on my nose. I beg my parents to buy me fake, blue-tinted contacts. They refuse on the grounds of expense and frivolity. They don’t mention the term “internalized racism.” This term doesn’t exist in our vocabulary, especially not in Fairport, NY, especially not yet.
The first time my mother sees my blonde hair, she covers her face with her hands and weeps. Maybe she’s crying because I’m becoming more independent, more rebellious, further away from her. Maybe she’s crying because I look hideous. My hair is so dark and thick that when I bleach my hair blonde, it’s never really blonde, but more of an aggressive, gaudy yellow.
Or maybe bleaching my hair is another sign of rejection. Rejection of her, rejection of where she – we – come from.
I bleach my hair so many times it turns brittle and breaks off at the ends. I chop my hair short and keep bleaching it. Then I start listening to punk rock and dye my hair cherry red, violet purple, and midnight blue instead. I listen to angry punk rock and write the lyrics of angry punk rock songs on the surface of my desk in pen. One afternoon, my teacher sends me to the principal’s office and the principal, disturbed by the angry content of the lyrics, sends me to the school psychologist. I visit the school psychologist for four, maybe five sessions. She feeds me hot cocoa and candy. We talk, not about anything important, but when she calls my father to discuss her diagnosis, she concludes that I am ashamed of my mother, ashamed of being half Okinawan. My father and I both laugh. “What a hack!” he says, and I agree. I never visit the school psychologist again.
* * *
When I am fourteen, a boy, a cute boy, a drummer in a punk rock band, tells me that I would be much more attractive with my natural hair color. I take his advice as a token of kindness, as attention he has graciously spared. I promptly dye my hair black. He notices. He compliments. A clear sign I have a chance. I tell my friend to tell his friend to tell him that I have a crush. He processes the news with immediate resourcefulness and tells his friend to tell my friend to tell me that he will let me give him a blowjob.
“He’ll let you?” is my friend’s offended and appropriate response. We don’t know if he’s joking, just aiming to shock, a tendency among proclaimed punk-rockers. But my response is different. I take his offer as a token of kindness, as attraction, and attraction equals want and want equals value. Because if he would allow my mouth to go so near and around his penis, then he must be at least a little fond of me.
Because nothing else has ever happened. I have never held hands with a boy, never cuddled with a boy. The last and only time someone has kissed me was three years ago, on a playground, where I leaned forward when I was supposed to stand still, accidentally bashing his teeth with my teeth and busting his lips with my braces. Our friends stood in a circle around us, witnessing and making sure to spread the word of every detail. I haven’t fully recovered. This blowjob could be my start, my big break, my opportunity to woo him and redeem myself. I tell my friend to his friend to tell him I accept his offer.
It happens in a basement. It lasts less than a minute. We don’t hold hands. We don’t cuddle or kiss. He doesn’t ask for my number or ask his friend to ask my friend for my number and call the next day.
There is really no such thing as black hair. Only very, very dark, dark brown hair. Only a brown so dark and so deep it contains many other colors. Sometimes in the sunlight or firelight or lamplight, it reflects tints of yellow, red, purple, even blue, naturally.
After I dye my hair black, it doesn’t look right. It looks flat and dead. It takes months to grow out, to return to my natural hair color. The cute boy who let me give him a blow job ends up dating a blonde anyway.
* * *
The blowjob offers don’t necessarily come pouring in. There are two. I accept both. I also accept when someone offers to finger me while he fucks his girlfriend. I also accept when someone offers to let me put my hand down his pants and touch his dick in an auditorium, surrounded by our English class, during a staged production of Hamlet.
None of them ask for my number. None of them ask their friend to ask my friend for my number and call the next day.
And I don’t think this is because I’m a member of a race that is fetishized. I don’t think this is because I’m Asian and therefore undateable. I think this is because I’m doing something wrong, uniquely wrong. I’m uniquely wrong. Just me.
* * *
When I am eighteen, I move to Boston. Almost every day, while walking through the park, standing at an intersection, sitting on a train, someone, almost always a man, asks me, “Where are you from?”
“Fairport, NY,” I answer.
“No, where are you really from?”
I tell him I’m half Okinawan and he smiles. He seems intrigued, enthused, approving. He looks at me like I’m beautiful. It feels glorious.
I accept when someone offers to let me lose my virginity in the backseat of his Ford Bronco. I accept when someone offers to pound me from behind on a towel on the floor of the laundry room of my college dormitory.
And so on and so on.
* * *
When I am nineteen, I decide that I must use my exoticness to my advantage. I get a tattoo of my middle name in between my shoulder blades: the kanji inside of a red sun with a white crane flying toward it. The red sun is a symbol of good fortune and the white crane is a symbol of grace. The premise of my tattoo is a bit ridiculous because only gangsters and criminals get tattoos in Japan. And the kanji might not be correct (and for the rest of my life I will be too afraid, too ashamed to verify whether it is indeed correct), because before I get the tattoo, I thumb through an English-Japanese dictionary, consulting my white American father, because my Japanese-speaking, Okinawan mother couldn’t possibly know the kanji for my middle name. She never went to high school. I assume she is illiterate.
Throughout my life, only lovers will refer to me as ‘Miki.’ They will take it as their pet name. They will take it as intimate. Often, they will forget to ask permission. Although I love to hear the sound of it, something feels wrong, fake about it. Maybe because I am not a miki. Maybe because I used to mock my mother for not being able to pronounce my first name.
Elizabeth Miki Brina is a writer based in New Orleans. She is currently working on a memoir that focuses on her mother, the history of Okinawa, and the struggles of growing up biracial. Her work has appeared in Bad Pony, Hippocampus, and is forthcoming in Hyphen and Under the Gum Tree.