My name has historically had three tiers, kind of like your average layered wedding cake.
The first tier is the longest one: Yanjinlkham. The holy Buddhist-Mongolian name a monk blessed me with 18 years ago, Yanjinlkham is the dependable, bottom cake layer that supports all of the others. Though it’s a little too dense for my taste — all consonants and no vowels — I’m proud that this name still terrorizes the dreams of all the substitute teachers who’ve battled it while calling roll (and lost).
The second tier is Yanichka. Given to me by my Czech daycare teacher, this part of the cake is quintessentially Slavic. Not too long, not too short, just right — this is the “Goldilocks” layer I pass off as my birth name. I went exclusively by it before I started college, and it’s what my mom calls me most of the time, which means it’s pretty legit.
In ninth grade, a friend deemed “Yanichka” too time-consuming to say (which I genuinely understand — in fact, if it were someone else’s name and not mine, I could see myself thinking the same), and as a result, a repurposed misspelling of a common Greek male name was born: the top layer of my cake, Yani.
After being fed mantras about reinventing yourself in college in the weeks leading up to move-in day, I decided to introduce myself with this top layer during freshman orientation. I reasoned that since everybody forgets each other’s names/backgrounds/faces in the first couple of weeks anyways, there wasn’t any harm in upgrading Yani from an endearing nickname, for the exclusive use of a handful of friends, to an actual name. I thought I’d ease into being called Yanichka later to spare myself from having to repeat it four times for each of the 100 people I would meet the first week of school.
Yet close to two months later, I’m still Yani from Texas, and I’m starting to feel like the other layers of my identity never existed in the first place. “Yanichka” almost sounds like jumbled, mushy nonsense to my ears every time I ring up my mom or a high school friend and hear them use it — Ynshkuh. I find myself questioning if I was really called that for my entire life and wondering why I’ve forgotten it so easily.
I’m not the first in my family to change my name for convenience. My brother legally changed his name from Gonchigsuren to Alexander this past year due to his role in the military. Life in the Marine Corps is exceptionally difficult, and it’s even more so with a 12-letter Mongolian first name. My brother — one of the most naturally charismatic, hardworking people I know — has told me stories of how sergeants have avoided calling on him or delegating tasks to him because they didn’t want to say his name. Understandably, he was frustrated, and a year into service, he signed away his birth name at a courthouse.
My mom took this to mean that I should get a “white” name, too. She insists that I’ll be more employable in the future and easier to network with, especially here at Stanford. While I was applying for U.S. citizenship this past summer, I seriously considered her suggestion — the naturalization form offers a free place to change your name, so it was then or never. I did rigorous research, consulting my friends on which American name would suit me the best. (The top three finalists were Karen, Heather and Valerie — which name do you think screams “conforming to ridiculous social pressures that contradict my personal values so I can more likely get job interviews” the most? Comment below!)
Obviously, I didn’t go through with it. I fully believed that my tiered set of names was too inescapably linked to my sense of self to ever justify replacing it with something completely foreign.
My weeks here have shown that my identity is not so strictly defined. I don’t instinctively think of myself as Yanichka anymore, despite blogs, social media accounts, this column displaying that name. Yani feels too cute, too fun for me somehow — I don’t exactly know how to integrate its enthusiastic college-girl persona with my depression. And the only place I ever see Yanjinlkham is when I glance down at my student ID or when I hand TSA agents my driver’s license.
So I think I may be limiting myself by using this layer cake analogy. Maybe my name is more like a living organism, continuously evolving with and adapting to my changing and interacting personal values and self-perception. Like a … tree, or a gaggle of geese in migration.
Or, my name could be nothing at all — simply a superficial, impersonal word that labels rather than introspectively informs the self: a matter of convenience.
Contact Yanichka Ariunbold at yanichka ‘at’ stanford.edu.