What's in a Name

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Recently, I volunteered to judge a public speaking tournament where my daughter was competing. Sitting in the high school library with at least 50 other judges, I waited for the coordinators to call my name - a situation that, over the years, has elicited anxiety, embarrassment, even annoyance.

I don't mind anymore if someone reads my name and butchers it. Really, I don't. Everywhere except Hungary, which my parents fled after the failed anti-Communist Revolution of 1956, I expect them to butcher it.

But when the public speaking coordinator stumbled upon the ballot with my name on it, she blurted: "Oh no, here we go. This one's going to be tough! I don't even want to try! It looks Polish or something..." I knew it was mine.

Not saying anything, I just walked over and took the sheet, but my frown must have given its own speech. I am disappointed that I let myself get upset, again, about a name that today stands for pride in my parents' struggle to resist assimilation and to pass on their language and culture to their ungrateful teenagers.

But I'm not only Hungarian, I am also a proud American. The coordinator's misguided, but well-intentioned approach to a simple name implies that I am different, not from here, and so complicated in name that we're not even going to try. But I am no outsider. I attended the very high school where she was a guest that day,


When I was 16 and exasperated with my parents I asked: "Why didn't you just name me Jennifer?" And their answer then and now: "So that everyone knows your family is Hungarian and you can tell them about 1956."

Years later, at a newly-opened Starbucks in Budapest, I ordered one of the first tall lattes. The barista asked for my name. "Reka," I said. I was not asked to repeat my name, she didn't ask me how to spell it or where I was from. She just thanked me and moved on to the next customer.

With a Perspective, this is Reka Pigniczky, or Pigniczky Reka.

Reka Pigniczky is a broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker. She lives in Orinda.