I came to the “Great White North,” Canada, with my parents and younger brother. We left our small village in Vojvodina in the former Yugoslavia with four suitcases in which I recall my mother packing four metal plates, four spoons, four forks and one pot for cooking. This memory always makes me smile. Armed with kitchen utensils, my mom and dad were ready to embrace a better economic future.
Immigration Day was January 28, 1971. I now refer to it as the beginning of alteration – the beginning of identity modification of a foreign child. In 1971, I was a seven-year-old Serbian girl named Nada. By 1973, my name was altered, anglicized, changed, so that I appeared to be more English. After immigrating, I struggled, as many immigrants do, while my name was being mispronounced. Throughout the next two years, I developed a “multiple personality disorder.” I, Nada, was Nayda, Nunziata, Naydia, and Nayday. Eventually in 1973, a thief permanently stole my name.
The thief was my teacher.
One day, when the teacher referred to me as “Nayda,” with all the courage a ten-year-old can muster I corrected him saying, “My name is Nada. Short A. You’re not pronouncing my name correctly.” He stared at me and did not flinch when he said, “Nancy is a much better name for you.” Nada means nothing in Spanish. It is also used in English-speaking circles with the same meaning. The noun nada is an informal way to say zero. I now know that the latin root nata means small, an insignificant thing. That’s not great for a ten-year-old girl’s self esteem. That’s how I felt that day, insignificant. The teacher proceeded to assimilate me by changing my school registration to Nancy, and told me to use and write my new name from then forward. Sadly, a new me was born. A Canadian girl with an English name. I was accepted and I fit in. No one mispronounced my name anymore. Acceptance was the price of forced social assimilation. Pardon my sarcasm, but from my parents’ perspective, there were no cows to milk and no outhouse. They felt that central heating, running water, a phone, a Ford station wagon, and of course Levi’s jeans were a fair trade off for a name change, a daughter now called Nancy.
My family was a part of our church community. We went to picnics, celebrated our ethnicity and practised our faith. I danced in a folklore group where we, the immigrant children, called each other by our “new” English names. Radmilo, Milos, Dragoljub, Dragica, and Jelena became Roger, Mike, Danny, Doris and Helen. Some parents even referred to their children using their new Anglo names. We used to laugh at their accents and their attempts to embrace the language of their new country. We would chuckle as they mixed the two languages, now fondly known amongst us as “Serblish.” In retrospect, I understand that they did their best for us. Most of our parents had minimal educations. They worked in factories and were labourers. They were honest, proud and above all, wanted to give their children a better life. Most of them relayed to their children that it’s okay to have an English name. However, the same amount of wiggle room was not given on the topic of marriage: a Serbian daughter-in-law or son-in-law was clearly preferred.
I think the chip on my shoulder comes from the fact that this country’s slogan is “the land where we celebrate our differences.” As a child, I was not celebrated. My name was ridiculed and changed without my consent. I was without a voice, left with no choice but to be called by the name an insensitive teacher allocated to me, approved by an ignorant school system.
Fifty years later, in 2021, it’s the name Nancy that means nothing, nada, zero to me. I have never felt a connection to it and I still struggle with it. I don’t feel authentic with an English name. And let me tell you why. Today, I am hoping that everyone appreciates the power of their name. Ironically, the translation of my Serbian name Nada into English is “hope”. And Hope is a theological virtue. Hope is an inherent part of being a human being. Hope is a wish. Appreciating the power of a name connects us to our identity and to the cherished part of our family’s history. Our name pays homage to our ancestors. I think having hope links our past to our present and future.
My name carries Serbian generational pride, which includes our Orthodox faith and customs such as celebrating our Slava, our family patron saint’s day; greeting our friends and family by kissing three times; and raising our first three fingers in the air to demonstrate we are patriots. With my Serbian name, I pay homage to my grandfather, Vid Mrdja. He was the first to immigrate to America and his name is on a list in Ellis Island. A year later, he boarded a ship and volunteered to fight for his country in World War I. He left America to become a hero on the Salonika Front. To my grandfather, I will always remain his granddaughter, unuka Nada. To my children, daughter and son, I am and always have been mama Nada. As for my future grandchildren, I will make certain that I will be their grandma, baka Nada.
Your name is your treasure.
Nada Mrdja Pandurević lives in Ontario, Canada. She enjoys promoting cuisine from her native area of Vojvodina and has had a lifelong career in Serbian activism. She considers one of her greatest moments and accomplishments in life to have been a translator for the late Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle. She is a devoted mother to her daughter and son, to whom she has passed on the importance of Orthodox customs and heritage.
Nothing makes her happier than to sip an espresso while outside in her garden with her loyal companion Bruno the beagle by her side. Painted on the fence there is her favourite quote by Patriarch Pavle: “EVERYTHING WILL PASS BUT THE SOUL. YOUR MORAL IMAGE AND THAT WHICH IS GOOD WILL REMAIN FOREVER!” (PROĆI ĆE SVE, ALI DUŠA. OBRAZ I ONO ŠTO JE DOBRO OSTAJE.)
Editor’s Note: The Pandurevic name may be familiar to our Serbian readers as Nada’s daughter Julianna is currently in the process of compiling a book of stories about Serbian war veterans. (Serbian Times, 08-15-2020, Antonije Kovacevic)
Your story resonated with me not because my name was altered, although saying OSTRICH in place of Ostoich was a common faux pas for my teachers Even after corrected them by pointing out , “There is no R in my name”, some boldly continued with their mispronunciation. Imagine being in a class with Sofia Obradovich, Olga Pesovic, Michael Narancich, Danica Kustudich, Mile Jelsavjevich…it was an Anglo Saxon nightmare. I was amazed how easily they were able to pronounce the Polich surnames while somehow ours were “difficult”.
But good was to come out of my experiences of intended mispronounciations. As an educator of 35+ years, I made it my mission to deliberately pronounce my students names CORRECTLY the first day in class by writing it phonetically in my classroom rosters. The new immigrants to our school community came from Iraq, Egypt, Pakistan, and the Ukraine and you can bet that these new students would enjoy the luxury and respect of having their names pronounced PERFECTLY each and every day.
Thank you for your essay. It was an enjoyable read and stirred up many memories.
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Most of us can relate to this ‘abuse’ of our ethnic names. ‘How can you pronounce it Turbovich when there is no r?’ When my eldest was in nursery school, the teacher, Mrs. Krissinger, continually mispronounced Orlich as Orlick. After several attempts by the 4 year old to get it right, I confronted her. Her response, ‘well, in Germanic languages…’ I stopped her right there with, ‘we are not ALL Germanic and please pronounce our name correctly.’
Is it rudeness, laziness or just ethnic bias?
Well done, Nada. I loved it.
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Thank you, Sandi and Joanne for helping to share my mom’s story. I am so proud of you, my mama Nada!
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We are honored that she chose to share her story with our audience. It is wonderful to see the pride that you have in her accomplishments!
I was made fun of constantly, but no one changed my name. There were times I wish they had, but as an adult am glad that they did not. My mom’s name was also Nada and I was born in Vojvodina as well. Great read!