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facts & arguments

NEAL CRESSWELL/The Globe and Mail

'That's an interesting name. Where is it from? Is it short for something? Europe, eh? Were you born there?"

Before I can even begin to build a rapport with someone or connect on a common interest, my name catches his or her attention. Before I can share my personal story one is already written for me.

My parents named me Gintaras and called me Gint for short. If you read that as Jintaras and Jint then you, like the rest of the world, have mispronounced my Lithuanian name. That consonant is a hard "g" like gramophone, not soft like gin. While my grandparents immigrated to Canada more than a half-century ago, Lithuanians are a proud people and often maintain their identity for many generations. This includes sometimes giving your children names that are impossible to anglicize so that everyone can ask where you're from.

My mother explained to me that in the 1970s multiculturalism was on the rise and it became commonplace to give your children foreign names that reflected their ancestral origins. I can appreciate that sentiment since I value diversity and multiculturalism, but there can be a middle ground. For example, Lucas and Thomas in Lithuanian are Lukas and Tomas. The direct translation of Gintaras is "amber," which anglophones see as a girl's name, adding to the peculiarity of my identity.

While my friends and family who have known me for years argue that my name is easy to pronounce, most new people I meet still struggle it. For many years I had to create a way for people to remember the correct pronunciation: "It's Gint. Like 'mint' with a G."

While some have found this cute, I don't appreciate having to explain my name each time like a nursery rhyme. It can get exhausting in a party setting where you're being introduced to new faces every few minutes. For a long time people would refer to me as "Gint like mint" since I used this mnemonic device so frequently.

But there are other times when instead of sticking out, my name has made me feel invisible.

For about three years I worked as a bank teller. My nametag read "Gint," very clearly, so that customers could know who was helping them. The problem is that Canadians can be too polite. When you have an uncommon name, they would rather call you nothing than mispronounce your name. Some customers made the effort to get to know me over the years but to many others I was known as "you" or simply nothing. There's no worse feeling than regulars coming up to the counter and saying "Good morning Sandy! Good morning Ryan! Good morning … you!"

In high school I got so fed up that I filled out paperwork to change my name. It was a dramatic gesture, and not well thought out. I arbitrarily picked Trent Halderman, although I am not certain where that inspiration came from. My parents opposed the motion and suggested that if I didn't like my first name I could go by my middle name, Paul. This proposition piqued my interest but I put the idea on the backburner for a while until I finished university.

Some years later I was hired to do student recruitment for a postsecondary institution. I would be meeting hundreds of students, parents and guidance counsellors each day. I did not want to be "Jint" or "You" or empty silence. I didn't want to be a poster child for conspicuous multiculturalism. I wanted people to move past the name and get to know me instead of focusing on that one oddity.

So I sent an e-mail to my manager: "I'd like you all to start calling me by my middle name. Paul."

The next year was a bit of a transition for co-workers who had previously called me Gint. Nevertheless I was very happy that they all made a genuine effort and supported my choice.

Some of my friends were not as agreeable. They felt that I was betraying my identity, and I was unnecessarily complicating their lives. I didn't ask any of my close friends or family to start calling me Paul, but I wanted them to understand that this is how I would be introducing myself and that they would need to respect that.

I feel that my decision comes off as un-Canadian to some people, which bothers them. We're used to the idea of the cultural mosaic and pride in our homeland. I certainly am proud of my culture and heritage. But I believe I can honour my ancestry even if I go by my more common English middle name.

The story we would all like to hear is that my experiment was unsuccessful and I returned back to being Gint with a renewed appreciation. But that's not what happened.

When I meet someone new, the exchange is much simpler: "Hi, I'm Paul."

"Nice to meet you."

No double takes, no rhymes, no questions. Just Paul.

Last May I began a part-time graduate program. I still introduce myself as Paul, but I should be using my full name for academic papers (and the occasional personal essay). So I use G. Paul Sileika. And if people read my papers and ask me what the G. stands for, I'll be happy to tell them.

G. Paul Sileika lives in Toronto.