Last week, at a client’s request, I signed up for a work related networking platform. When prompted, I typed in my usual username, kikarose, plugged in a password and went on with my merry day. It’s the same user name I use for everything so I gave it no thought at all until I got a ping a few hours later asking me about the story behind the name.
After all, my name is Jessica, not Kika. The confusion is understandable.
I only hesitated a minute before answering that Kika is what I called myself when I was a young child because I couldn’t actually pronounce Jessica. My mother thought it would be funny to tell my college friends about my childhood nickname and they all resurrected it with glee.
I was Kika until elementary school and, after a lengthy break, again all through med school, law school, and English lit grad school*. Then I moved to the states and became Jessica again. Sometimes Jess. Never, ever Jessie.
I told this story and I stopped for a minute to wonder
a) how I’d stopped being Kika,
b) if I stopped being Kika, why is that the name I use online,
c) if I should change it on this particular site or if that would be weird now that I’d shared the background.
Then, of course, life got busy and I promptly forgot. That is, until yesterday when, at a mother’s group kick-off event, I found myself doing some weird with my hand and my hair whenever the person I was talking to asked me a slightly more probing question than the usual getting-to-know-you chit chat.
Except her questions weren’t all that probing.
“Oh, you write? What do you write?”
“Where are you from?”
Nothing all that earth shattering.
So, of course, being who I am, I’ve been torturing myself all day about why all of these things have made me self-conscious.
When I was a kid, known to many as Kika, I cared little about fitting in. I was who I was. Take it or leave it. Then, when I turned 7, my whole family pulled up roots and moved across the ocean to start a brand new life in a brand new world.
Overnight I went from being just a kid living her life to “the kid from far away who didn’t speak the language and needed countless hours of ESL classes every day.” That first year was a nightmare. The kids where horrible and picked on me endlessly, constantly pointing out how very unfathomably different I was. They picked on my clothing, my toys, my behavior, my food… everything was fair game. I was “assigned” a best friend, and, when, instead, I chose to play with a boy who also happened to be an outcast, I was essentially shunned for the rest of the year. I’ll never stop being grateful that my parents allowed me to change schools before the next year started.
I doubt it was a conscious thought, in fact, even thinking about it now, I don’t recall being intentional about it, but the new school was where I started doing my best to fit in.
I put away my very French doll and begged for Cabbage Patch Kids. I started dressing like an American kid, eschewing my Peter Pan collared shirts and embracing Oshkosh B’gosh overalls. I insisted I be allowed to join the Girl Scouts and I threatened mutiny if my parents didn’t send me to a real American summer camp in the mountains.
It worked. I meshed seamlessly with the kids at the new school.
I got a three year respite from trying to fit in when we moved to London, England where I went to school with hundreds of other expat kids. And then we went back to France where, once again, I was a square peg trying to fit into a round hole.
French kid to the expat students at my international school. American to the French kids who’d never left the country. Everything I did made me stand out to someone.
So I adapted. Transformed back into a chameleon. I acted French with the French crowd and overly American with the Americans. Long gone was the kid who just was and didn’t care what anyone thought of her.
Great, Jessica/Kika, whatever your name is, but what does that have to do with your childhood nickname or weird tic from yesterday?
Well, actually, everything. It has everything to do with it.
For a brief time in college I found my tribe, people who celebrated me for being me, quirky, different, original. Then I left again. Headed back across the ocean, back to being a foreigner in a land that felt like my own.
I left my carefree self back with my nickname and once again molded myself into a version of me that fit into my new life.
Don’t we all? Don’t we all try hard to blend? To fit in? To be who people expect us to be?
Turns out, I’m really good at blending in and fitting in. So good, in fact, most people are shocked to learn that I come from a different country.
I work hard to fit into my town, where people tend to be slightly more affluent than we are and way more accomplished than I can ever dream.
I blend. I answer what I’m supposed to answer. Act like who I’m supposed to be. And I fit in.
Until people ask me questions that I know will show them just how different I really am. Then I get nervous. Because, my cover, if that’s what it is, is rather flimsy and easily shaken. That’s when I start to fidget and play with my hair.
“Where are you from?” Well, there goes that.
“What do you write?” Terrifying. Writing is not the norm. Most people have “real” jobs. Also, writing is where I bare my soul. It’s where I share the things I usually hide so well. Writing is me, the real me. Talking about the writing makes me feel painfully vulnerable.
Writing is why I’m Kika online. Because she’s the real me. The one behind the words.
At one point in the mom’s group meeting an acquaintance sidled up and thanked me for the honesty and truth in my most recent posts. “You always say what we’re all secretly thinking.”
It was a reminder of why I write what I write. Why I let myself be vulnerable through my words.
The need to hide behind a facade is strong. The need to blend in, to be one with everyone else, is something that I’ve tried to do for so long now, I hardly even recognize I do it. It’s safe back here. But it’s also lonely in a way words can’t express.
Maybe I should try harder to be myself all the time, not just behind a computer.
Maybe we should all try to be more ourselves, because I can’t help but wonder how many of us were scared by jerks in elementary school who taught us that different is bad and erasing the parts of us that rock the boat is the only way to survive.
What will it take to allow us to be our true selves? Who knows who we could help by speaking what’s in our hearts rather than what we assume people want us to say?
**The blue streak in my hair might be a bit of a rebellion from all the fitting in. Just wait until I get a tattoo.