Creative Non-Fiction by Noreen Ocampo
NOREEN M. OCAMPO
My father insisted that I should have perfect handwriting. We would sit at the low mahogany table in our living room, and he would watch as I traced capital letters into the late afternoon, placing a knife-sharpened pencil into the green alphabet stencil he had brought from the Philippines. I soon learned to produce perfect script, as big and bold as my father’s writing on the balikbayan boxes he periodically sent home: his mother’s name, sometimes his older sister’s name, written in sturdy, powerful letters. From my father, I never learned the rest of the alphabet, never reproduced those bold letters’ lowercase counterparts.
One kindergarten afternoon, I lingered in the hallway after recess, examining my class’ newest art projects strung proudly on the wall. I was the only student to write my name with such bravado, spelling it out like law. NOREEN M. OCAMPO, I had written, each letter unapologetic in the space it occupied. I hated how my name demanded attention from its place on the wall, a red-crayon demand.
The next time my work hung in the hallway with my classmates’, my name—still as neat as ever—shrank to half its original size. Noreen Ocampo, I wrote, seamlessly blending in.
In the sixth grade, a boy stumbled over how to spell my name. I wondered why as I waited for his first guess, well-aware that “Noreen” was not particularly foreign. Nurine, he wrote on the whiteboard eventually, a phonetic reproduction of the name I had pronounced when he asked. He whipped around to peer at me in confusion. “Like that?”
A laugh rippled through the room, coaxing an uneasy smile onto my lips. “Nor-een,” I said, my own name suddenly unfamiliar in my mouth.
A look of clarity passed over the boy’s face, his crumpled features relaxing, and I watched as he erased the familiar softness of the previous spelling and replaced it with hard, unwieldy syllables, scrawling my name in Expo-blue for all to see.
About three years prior, I had learned the “correct” pronunciation of surprise after listening to my classmates elude the first “r” as we read a story aloud. I adjusted quickly and swallowed the pronunciation I had heard at home before it was my turn to read. This new realization, however, was harder to stomach: after all this time, had my mother, my father—had I been pronouncing my own name wrong?
2019 saw a resurgence of the “Put me in coach!” meme. My brother, twelve years old and all-too-resourceful, promptly crowned it as his favorite meme of the week, referencing the funny line at any given opportunity. That same week, my brother gifted me a nickname, “Coach,” which became the first name he had ever referred to me by. By some stroke of unprecedented luck unbeknownst to any Filipino younger sibling before us, he had successfully evaded the anxiety of mispronouncing Filipino words and thus the tradition of calling me “Ate” (“big sister”). Not once had I ever heard him utter the honorific during his childhood, and while not obstructive, a strange sense of namelessness characterized our relationship.
This seemingly trivial meme renaissance led to my brother naming me for the first time in our lives, partially as a joke but also as an undeniable nod at our sibling dynamic. Interestingly enough, the nickname “Coach” has persisted for over a year by now, and while I would love to be my brother’s “Ate,” I don’t mind being “Coach” until he grows so tall that I will have no choice but to call him “Kuya.”
Noreen Ocampo → ?
In high school, I learned that my name was not my name—at least legally. My middle initial, M., was actually just that, although I had always thought I was carrying my mother’s maiden name. Somewhere along the way, things had gotten jumbled; my mother says she must not yet have recovered from my birth by the time the nurses pressed her for a name, giving me a single letter rather than an entire history.
As I imagine the potential future iterations of my name, I return to the beginning, to this beginning, to what my parents intended when they named me. Although I have long since stopped including my middle initial when I write out my name, I am considering letting my name take up even more space than it did when I was a kindergartener writing in all capitalized letters. I am beginning to appreciate that our names have the capacity to take up so much space; I am beginning to understand that this space is deserved.
In a similar vein, “Noreen” is not the only part of my name whose pronunciation I have struggled with. While I adopted my parents’ pronunciation of my first name without a second thought, I have always pronounced my last name “Ocampo” with an American accent, which produces a much harsher sound than a Filipino one. As I look to the future, I want to embrace my name in its entirety and not a diluted, more convenient version. There is no shame in a name that cannot sit properly in everyone’s mouth.
Noreen Ocampo (she/her) is a Filipina American writer double-majoring in English and Film Studies at Emory University. She is also currently a book reviewer for COUNTERCLOCK, a very amateur singer-songwriter, and an Animal Crossing enthusiast. In the future, Noreen aims to fulfill a role in the intersection between storytelling and education. She is a regular contributor for Marías at Sampaguitas.