Growing up, my dad’s family was vocally proud about their Irish heritage. Not only was his hometown called “Irish Settlement”, but their home church was St. Patrick’s. I took Irish dance classes when they were offered in my town. We would always mark St. Patrick’s Day by wearing green and obnoxious shamrock paraphernalia, going to the local parade, having a visit from leprechauns who would leave pots of gold coins around our house and attending parties when I was older.
My Irish ancestors moved to the United States almost 200 years ago now, but being Irish was certainly part of my identity as an American.
That was a big part of why I wanted to study here — my Irish heritage. However, when people ask me why I wanted to study here, I sheepishly reveal that part of my interest. It isn’t so much that I’m embarrassed, it is simply that I don’t know how to convey my family’s pride in our heritage without sounding like a creepy cultural stalker.
Then there’s my name. It’s Irish, but apparently we pronounce it differently in the United States. That’s been surprisingly weird for me here. For example, I’ll give my name to sign in at an event and I’ll say “Kristina McLaughlin (Mic-lawf-lynn)” to which they will often repeat my name, but pronounce it as “Mac-lock-lynn”. Before I left, one of my cousins told me a story about my late aunt traveling through Ireland. She would say her name was “McLaughlin (Mic-lawf-lynn)” and would get a similar response “McLaughlin (Mic-lock-lynn)”. After awhile it drove her a little crazy to the point where she turned to my cousin and said, “Why can’t they just say it right!?”
I remember hearing that story and thinking, but they are saying in right and we are the ones saying it wrong. And at the time I couldn’t quite understand why it would bother her.
Now I get it.
Mind you, it doesn’t bother me (probably in the same way I imagine it didn’t really bother her), but it has fueled a bit of an identity crisis…or maybe just a slight stutter when I say my name. Because when I give my name, how should I pronounce it? The way it is pronounced in America? They way I have grown up pronouncing it? Do I insist that they pronounce it my way? Or do I just pronounce it the way it is supposed to be pronounced? A way that feels very foreign to my tongue? A name that doesn’t feel like it belongs to me?
This became really apparent to me on a recent flight back to the United States. They were looking for a passenger with the name “McLaughlin (Mac-lock-lynn)” and it took awhile before I realized, oh that might be me. I raised my hand and said, “I guess I’m a McLaughlin”. (Which got a few looks – like you guess you know your own name??) As it turned out they weren’t looking for me, but that moment stuck…”I guess I’m a McLaughlin”?
Many people in the United States think of themselves as (something)-Americans. And while I would never have introduced myself as an Irish-American because my family had been in the U.S. for so long (and to be fair, I have ancestors from the majority of countries in Western Europe), it was a part of my identity. However, it was in one of those instances where I was internally frustrated with someone was telling me how to pronounce my own name that I truly lost my “(something)-Americaness”. In that moment I realized just how American I was. While the pride and interest in my heritage didn’t melt away, the 200 years, the five generations suddenly felt like a much greater distance than it ever had before. For all the pride and representations of my Irish heritage in my life, it was really a manifestation of being American. I never felt so American in my entire life and it felt a bit strange.
I haven’t settled on an answer. I’ve noticed that I pause before giving my last name now. It probably looks as though I’ve forgotten it, but I’m really just trying to decide: do I give my name as I’ve said it all my life or not?