My name is Sarah, and there’s not much you can do with that in terms of nicknames. My sister Alexandra goes by Allie, and my brother Robert is Bobby for short. I’ve been called “tall Sarah,” “Sarah L.,” and more than once, “no not that one, the other,” but these hardly count as nicknames.
As an assistant English teacher in Spain, I have learned that what my name lacks in originality it makes up for in international convenience. When meeting Spaniards, those struggling with names like “Lowell” and “Josh” look relieved when I introduce myself. There is a small caveat, however. If I say my name as I always have, SAIR-ah, I too am met with blank looks. To be understood I replace the puckered lips of “r” with a tongue curved to the roof of my mouth. Somewhere between the tap for “da” and a full Latin “rrrrrr” you will find the Spanish pronunciation of my name, a soft “Sahda”. The spelling of my name also shifts. Consequently, my roommate’s texts read “Oye, Sara” and coworkers address emails to Sara.
In the seven months I’ve been here I’ve never corrected for the “h,” and on rare occasions I’ve forgotten it myself. With my students I enunciate everything in deliberate English except my name, instructing for our Jeopardy game, “Tell me, ‘We’ll take Idioms Aren’t For Idiots for 300, Sara.'”
In “Sara,” I imagine a personal invitation to Spanishness. Despite my language and appearance screaming otherwise, “Sara” is about as local as “paella” and as accepted as nodding off during the siesta. I came to this country ready to imitate, to learn Spanish as it’s spoken instead of taught, complete with a proper accent and the appropriate mannerisms. (Think of a Spaniard being able to rattle off “I’m gonna go grab a pop, wanna come with?” after a stay in the American Midwest.) Though I can’t articulate my thoughts or understand others as well in Spanish as I can in English, in my second language I navigate storytelling, hold my own in conversations on cultural differences, and fire indignant one-liners at the teenage hotshots who purposely bump into me. I tug on the skin below my eye to convey “pay attention” and shake out my hand (think a looser shaka) to emphasize excess, be it an expensive price tag or wasted bar patron. In moments of mental silence I reach for “Pues, yo que sé…”
At times the effects of my immersion are evident more in English errors than in Spanish progress. Despite speaking my native tongue daily, the bilingual influx alters it. I’ll use literal translations of Spanish phrases, asking, “How is it called?” I’ll struggle to remember a term like “round-trip” and type “next store” instead of “next door.”
Despite the mistakes in Spanish and English, I am grateful for what as “Sara” I can access: other expressions, a more relaxed attitude, new perspectives. These discoveries, most simply reflected in the Hispanicized name I’ve adopted as my own, prove to me that I am making strides toward the goal I came here to accomplish.
In a few weeks I’ll say goodbye to those who know me as “Sara.” In the meantime, I wonder, in the tradition of a tree falling in a forest, if no one sees me a certain way, can I be that person any more.
One day last week, I followed my name around the classroom to answer questions. A clear “Sarah” rang out. Surprised, I turned around to see Alberto waiting to ask me about problem number four. When I complimented him on his accent he beamed, but I wasn’t sure if he had said my name or my nickname.
Sarah is a University of Michigan graduate, finishing up a year as an expat in Spain. Her current favorite food is jamón croquetas (think mozzarella sticks but, instead of melty cheese, warm mashed potatoes and little chunks of ham). Her favorite TV series is 30 Rock, always. You can read more of her work in her blog, On This and On That.