‘Lebowitz! Come here!’ My mother would scream. She would only call me by my last name if she was cross with me. I don’t know why she did it, but every time it felt like she was singling me out from the rest of my Hong Kongese family. It felt as if only a Lebowitz – the surname of my father, only a guai (a derogatory term for a Westerner) could be so disobedient.
Growing up I detested my name. I hated my name because it was a constant reminder of some painful truths – that I am an outsider in my own family and that I had no clue as to where I was from. My father disappeared after my parents’ divorce and I didn’t find out about my guai side until I was an adult.
I hated my name so much that as a child I used to scribble and sign different names in the back of my notebooks in secret, trying them on for size and feel, but none of them fit - so I begrudgingly gave up. It also felt like a betrayal. After all, your name is the first thing you are given as an infant – it’s your first gift and wanting another name is like rejecting it.
But what happens when it’s a gift that you don’t really want? What happens when instead of instilling a sense of pride, your name makes you feel embarrassed - even ashamed?
There were many times as a child someone would ask where I was from with a surname like Lebowitz and I couldn’t answer because I didn’t know. My face red like watermelon, I would stutter, mumble something about divorce and hope my embarrassment was a satisfactory answer.
There were other times as a young woman when someone had seen my name on the appointment sheet and painted a certain picture of what I ought to look or sound like in their head. There were times when I was told I don’t look like a Polish blonde woman, or they had expected someone different – ‘but you don’t look Jewish’, as they stared at me perplexed. Over the years it became an assumption that Lebowitz is my husband’s name because I must be a heterosexual woman and if I am, I must have relinquished my own family’s name to take on my husband’s white name. When I say no, Lebowitz is my surname, some stare back at me blankly, unable to compute, others lower their gaze because they have been caught in their own prejudices.
I didn’t fully understand the power of names until my late twenties. I was at the end of my PGCE and had applied to several teaching positions but none of the schools invited me to interview. Frustrated and concerned, I told my mentor who immediately asked if I had included my full name on the applications or CV, including my Cantonese middle name. I did and found her question a little odd – I had never hidden my name no matter how much I had disliked it. ‘Take it off the applications, keep the personal statements as they are,’ she instructed. For every application sent off, I got an interview. The institutional racism was so subtle that had I blinked, I would have missed it. It had never occurred to me that someone, especially within education, would have racially profiled me, made judgements about who I was based on my name – or rather the ethnicity it represented.
During this time, I was getting married, and the subject of my surname came up. I had always found it odd how women could change their surnames and adopt a new one when married. I completely respect a woman’s choice because after all, it’s her choice. If your name is your identity, would changing it to something else be changing your identity? I suppose it is for some women – by taking on their husband’s name they are choosing to mark a new chapter in their life. But it has always struck me as odd, particularly as in Hong Kong culture married women keep their maiden names and are only known by their married names amongst family and friends. So, when my white middle-class in-laws had just assumed I would become ‘Mrs So and So’, part of their signet-ring-wearing club, I felt defiant.
The name which had cast me as ‘other’ all my life suddenly felt like a source of power – it felt powerful in being different. By saying no to the in-laws, I was saying yes to myself, to my identity, my difference and to the rich cultural heritage my name represents: I am both Hong Kongese and Jewish. I was not prepared to relinquish this newfound power. It was lucky I didn’t, because we were divorced 18 months into our marriage.
That power I felt was called into question when it came to publishing my book. I kept changing my mind about using a pseudonym. My indecisiveness was fuelled by fear – this book, this memoir contains not only embarrassing and sensitive content but also my most traumatic life events. What if the book isn’t well-received? What if there would be backlash from my family? What if I am trolled by critics on social media? What if…? The list went on. I was afraid that by publishing in my own name, there would be nothing to shield me – I would be totally vulnerable just as when I was a child: I would not be able to hide from my name.
A couple of months before my manuscript was acquired by Onwe Press, a friend and colleague suddenly died of a stroke. That did it for me. There are so many variables in life that I realised living in fear was not an option. I decided to put my name to my story. Something happens when putting your name down. You’re saying, ‘This is mine.’ Whether it is your book, your creation, your story or your truth – you’re telling the world and yourself this is you.
I am Di Lebowitz and I know who I am.
This piece has been published in Peach Street Magazine.
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