{ I Am the Bread }
Brad Siemens
graphic by Beth Sullivan

whitebreadThere is a strange balance in a wedding ceremony between claiming the life ahead, expressing identity as a couple, and trying not to offend, confuse, or otherwise maim relations with family and friends. To ease some of this tension, my wife and I married in Kenya, traveling there with only a small entourage of my immediate family (the Siemens clan) and Andrea's immediate family (the Martin clan). Still, our way of framing our life commitment was not met exclusively with balmy familial understanding.
   One of the more controversial decisions was to keep our own surnames. My wife and I both come from Mennonite families, and Mennonites have always had a strong sense of family heritage. We joke about the Mennonite Game, where two people can exchange surnames and then find common friends or relatives within minutes (though often the game continues for hours just for shits and giggles).
   Sometime between my parents' generation and mine, this emphasis on heritage merged with an emphasis on social justice, and, particularly, feminism. The loves of family and gender-equality begat a hyphenated-surname craze. In a drawer, we have a scourge of old wedding invitations from friends who became the Swartzendruber-Landis family, the Miller-Eshleman family, the Yutzey-Burkey family, etc. My own sister became a Siemens-Rhodes on her wedding day. Since Andrea and I have not achieved professional renown (my three freelance articles in the Tribune-Review have yet to bring me name fame), our decision not to embrace both names brought confusion.
   The simple truth is that neither of us wanted to give up our own names completely, and neither did we want to clunk up our lives and signatures with a hyphen and six or seven new letters. The conversations spent explaining this led me to think more about the thoughts and traditions involved with naming.
   In Kenya, we had lunch one day with a Kikuyu family in their home. The Kikuyu are one of Kenya's indigenous tribes. Our host was named Undugu, which means "friend". Thus when choosing a Western name, he became "Fred". Undugu was named after his grandfather, which is Kikuyu practice. He had a third given name he shared with all the men in his village who were his age mates, another Kikuyu tradition.
   Undugu's one-hundred-and-two-year-old grandmother also ate lunch with us. Her name, Njeri, is one of ten names for Kikuyu women handed down through the Kikuyu creation story. Although the first Kikuyu man had ten daughters, they are referred to as "full nine" due to numeric superstitions. Much in the way that skyscrapers seldom have a thirteenth floor, Kikuyu people consider it unlucky to say the number ten, and thus coined the phrase "full nine."
   In comparison to these naming traditions and idiosyncrasies, my own name, Brad, feels quite vapid. From its English origins, Brad means broad. However, I am of German-Russian origin, I was born on St. Patrick's day, and, though I am 6'4", I have trouble keeping 33-inch waist pants from falling down over my broad ass.
   As if this disconnect between my life's history and my name isn't enough, I've found that Brad really doesn't translate well into other cultures. An experience in Kenya is a perfect example: I introduced myself to a young boy who then wanted to know how my name was spelled. He mulled over "B, R, A, D" for several seconds, and then asked with sincere curiosity, "Like a loaf?" For the next weeks my family repeated this exchange some 225 times a day.
   The bad-pun mantra of my vacation was one of the more bearable moniker mishaps in my life. After college I spent one year in Thailand. For the entire year, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances referred to me as "Bland." And "Bland" was never said blandly, but in an urgent, grating way—like I was about to step on something precious.When it comes to being known as an offensive grunt, my "Bland" tenure in Thailand was outdone handily by the three months I spent in China. My inspired conversational English lectures were put into context by the progress my students made in pronouncing my own name. They spit out "Buu-lad" like it was a peasant mongrel of a word. But I had revenge when helping them choose English names. I was particularly fond of Yahoo, Mary Jane, and Dorcas.
   I suspect I learned this from my parents—not necessarily to combine naming and vengeance, but to treat the act of naming lightly. And my own rootless given name is not the worst America has to offer. One of my best friends recently found out that his nieces are named after Sarah O'Brien (Edward Furlong's bad-ass mother in the Terminator movies) and Rachel Hunter (big-breasted former wife of Rod Stewart also famous for her 1980s' Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition appearances).
   To a large degree, Americans are lazy, happenchance namers. Sure, there are those named after their grandparents or other relatives, and some are given biblical names. But many hairless babies become known as a set of labels that betray no history, imbue no hopes, and express no connection to family. Others are named after a set of sexy biceps or enhanced breasts. I have been lucky enough to experience ways that other cultures use names to define relationships and encourage positive traits.
   Friends in China gave me the Mandarin name Sai Zhi Yuan.

Sai — said with potent anger, complete with wrinkled nose; just a few emotional degrees away from spitting
Zhi — a flat tone, almost not wanting to be noticed, like a choir's in-take breath between quarter notes
Yuan — down, then up; practice with head movement like a boxer dodging a jab (up high on the left, under in the middle, up high on the right)

Sai Zhi Yuan. It means something along the lines of Strong Mr. Gold. Unfortunately, it hasn't helped my pocketbook over the years, but you can't blame them for trying.
   In Thailand, my friends found the United States of Americentric Brad to be too difficult on their tongues and consequently on my ears. I became Gaew Samark Samboon.

Gaew — said in the most utterly gay manner possible, as if mimicking the arc of a flirtatious, dismissive flip of the wrist
Samark Samboon — both with the same intonation, the aural equivalent of the most masterful dodge ball maneuver: a long, exceedingly casual stride to the right before popping up compactly, legs pulled to chest as the soft red rubber ball bounces underneath

Gaew Samark Samboon. Crystal of Infinite Ability. I kid you not. Clearly, that's a name I lived up to forever.
   These names are, and were, admittedly silly; I giggled as soon as I got them. But they try. They yearn for something, they try to lead the way, and be relevant to the life they're attached to. While Kikuyu culture endows names with a sense of connection to family, culture, and peers, and Asian societies often set forth an auspicious goal with a child's name, American names are too often gleaned from the weekend's box-office blockbuster or the cover of the latest Teen People.
   Of course, the irony of my lamenting this is that I also turned my back on a somewhat rich ethnic tradition. The Mennonite urge to hyphenate is an earnest attempt to acknowledge and celebrate familial connections. Instead, I chose to stick with the individual identity I've spent twenty-five years cultivating. This, I believe, is quickly becoming the most pertinent and personal question of our shrinking, border-blurring world: Is it better to have had culture and lost it, or never to have had culture at all?
   I am reminded of Undugu's grandmother Njeri. Her own great-granddaughter is also named Njeri, though only the elder Njeri really calls her that. The great-granddaughter is known as Sofia to friends, family, villagers, and especially acquaintances like me. So our era-defining personal question must be refined: Does it hurt more to have had culture and turned away from it, never to have had culture at all, or, as in the case of my parents and Njeri alike, to watch as your culture is lost?
   Though I have already turned away from a culture to an extent, I suspect it will take years to fully feel those implications. Perhaps my regret will arrive as I watch my own yet-to-be-born son Ernest (named after my grandfather, and also a quality to strive for) decide he wants to go by Bubba.

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