Madoka: The Story Behind my Name Change

Madoka, in Japanese, is an androgynous name. It’s also a name that I almost lost.

My father used to call me by this name. I remember it gently spilling out of his mouth – “Madoka”-  through the telephone, the day before he died. I felt the fragility and heart-aching gentleness in his voice. We were oceans away, suspended in our shared stillness, as our atoms collided in the intuitive knowing that he would be leaving me soon.

When I was twelve, I transferred out of my Japanese school to attend an American Middle School for the end of 5th grade. My homeroom teacher at this new school could not pronounce my Japanese name. My name made him feel awkward. So, he decided it wasn’t worth trying. After half of an attempt at saying Madoka, he immediately took refuge in my French name: Sarah. I’ve used Sarah before, whenever I went to an American setting, I used Sarah in foreign countries, because it made things simpler.

The funny thing is, even my French family doesn’t call me Sarah. They call me Madoka, because that’s the name I grew up with. In fact, Sarah isn’t even listed on my Japanese passport. But Sarah it was, because it was easier for me to accommodate to the comfort of western culture than it was for me to give people a chance to explore the unique texture and taste of my foreign name. It was easier to avoid the “I feel so bad I keep asking your name over and over again” thing. Plus, when they tried saying my name it sounded like an ugly spit of rocks falling out of their mouth in disarray.

I didn’t have the kind of patience back then to hear people butcher my name every single time. I learned at a very young age to accommodate to white comfort. Plus, Sarah is a great name. Simple, smooth, global and yes, pretty. I do love the name Sarah. It’s beautiful.

Ever since my incident with my 5th grade teacher, I started using Sarah at American settings, and used Madoka at home and with my close Japanese friends. It felt normal to me: having two names that I used interchangeably. Sarah for my English papers and midterms, Madoka at the dinner table. Sarah was caught drinking at school and got suspended, and Madoka had a serious talk with her dad when she got home (about not getting caught lol.) The two names merged and danced fluidly with each other, and I never saw it as a serious problem.

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Being silly with dad

I moved on to High School and College, and continued to use Sarah with all my new American friends and teachers. It seemed easier. And less demanding. Yes, I thought my real name was too demanding for people. But it felt natural, because I was used to being called Sarah when I was surrounded by white people. Even my first serious boyfriend in High School called me Sarah.

And then my dad died.

I was 19. Everything in me stopped that day, and drastically slowed down for the next three years. I curled up in my own shell as I mourned my father’s death away from home, in isolation, without a single family member nearby. But, my western life away from home continued and Sarah became the main name that I used for my college papers, job interviews, credit cards, bank accounts, friends and intimate partners. Madoka slowly faded in the background as something I would occasionally hear, when my sister called me. I longed for that name every day. Every time I heard it, it was the sweet taste of home, the remembrance of my dad, and the connection to my roots in Japan, where I grew up.

It took me several more years of living here in the U.S – six, to be exact – and then finally reconnecting with my family, to realize that I needed to reclaim my Japanese name. I am the only one in my family who lives in the United States. My brother lives in the UK, sisters live in France and Switzerland and mom is still in Japan. So, family reunions are a bit challenging.

Four years ago, we finally organized a mountaineering trip/reunion in Nepal where we hiked up to Gokyo Ri and scattered my dad’s ashes into the breathtaking peaks of the Himalayas.  It was 5 years after our dad died and we were finally getting together, for the first time since his death, to fulfill his dying wish. For a whole month, I was surrounded by my immediate family and close friends of my dad, who all called me Madoka. Every time I heard my name, I felt like I finally found my home again. Every time I heard “Madoka”, I remembered I still had a family.

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My sister, brother and I scattering our dad’s ashes in the Himalayas of Nepal

Upon my return from this trip, something hit me hard. The thought of never hearing my Japanese name and neglecting it as a thing from a past life, when in fact it shaped who I am today, was unbearable.

Madoka – It means: someone with a circular heart who emanates kindness to all.

I aspire to do just that. As best as I can.

So I finally decided to change my name. And oh boy was it a process. The transition was awkward for many, and frustrating for some who completely refused to call me by my original (but new to them) name. I totally get that it’s a weird transition – It’s hard to know someone by one name for years and then suddenly have to change what you call them. So I just offered it as an invitation, and if they weren’t ready, then I accepted that, because Sarah is also part of my identity after all. I don’t mind my old friends calling me that, because that was an important chapter in my life as well.

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Now I hear Madoka more than Sarah, and it finally feels like I’m honoring myself for who I am and where I come from. When people hear my name for the first time, they give me a confused look, but after a few repetitions, they’re cool with it. I encourage people to ask my name over and over again if they need to. And if they mispronounce it I don’t shame them. I have experienced moments where I myself struggled to pronounce someone’s name right. In those moments, I am relentless about asking them over and over again (respectfully, of course) and trying a bunch of times until I get it right.

Here’s what I learned through this process though: I learned that our names matter and it was given to us for a reason. I learned that it’s more important to honor your authentic self than to accommodate to the comforts of others. I learned that my fears are not as inflated as I make them seem, and that people are actually more than willing to make the effort to learn my name. I learned that real friends will understand that your transition is an important one. I also learned that being called by my real name brings me back to my home, back to my father, back to my roots, every single time. And that is a powerful thing to experience each and every day.

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