JUNE 25: JUST A BOY NAMED JOY by Nury Samjam Vittachi
I HATE MY NAME. I always have and expect I always will. Asian names (such as my girlish first name) are a burden in an English-dominated world. Thats why we often change them. We like to re-brand ourselves by flicking through English dictionaries.
In my hometown of Hong Kong, examples literally throng the streets: meet Anorak Chen, Sicky Tang, Green Show, Pubic Ha, Chocolate Lin, Alien Lee, Twinkie To, Ivan Ho, Piano Chow: these are all real people. In my younger days, I used to eat at the McDonalds in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon, served by staff whose personal names were Army, Incredible and Normal.
Sometimes Asians choose stunningly unsuitable names. I lacked the courage to tell He Man and Truly Mantwo girls from Kowloonthat their names lacked femininity.
Sometimes the names are ideal. The official appointed in mainland China to deal with music copyright was a Mr. Song. And a garage employee in Hong Kong carries the name To Bar, pronounced Tow bar.
The habit of adopting memorable English names doesnt just apply to China, of course. In the Philippines, Resurrection De Jesus is a personal name (and a lot to live up to). In India, people often have English names summing up their jobs. Reader Noel Rands told me of a friend named Yasmin Sodabottlepopbottleopenerwallah. Thats her real, legal name. If she ever gets to be Indias premier, well never be able to fit her into website headlines. This alone should surely disqualify her from standing.
My personal name (the full version is Nuryana) is an Islamic one which unfortunately sounds extremely feminine in English-speaking communities. I spent my entire childhood listed on the girls' register at various schools, and for the last 20 years have received mail addressed to Ms. Vittachi. In the past few days, I met a Bangladesh guy named Joy and a Chinese chap named Penny who live similarly miserable lives.
Yet one cant just abandon ones name. The underlying meanings of peoples names are believed to shape the lives of the people who carry them. The names of this writer and his brother were chosen with the help of an Indonesian mystic and spiritual leader. My name means Illuminator and my brother Adils name means Justice. Since I grew up to become a journalist and my brother became a lawyer, this is clear proof of one thing: God has a fine sense of irony. Lawyers? Justice?
Also, theres a belief in Asia that if your name changes by itself (for example, if a nickname becomes more commonly used than your given name), then your actual character will be fundamentally altered.
Some people have tried to comfort me by pointing out that as the influence of China grows, Asian names will stop being sore thumbs. Dont believe it. The vast majority of Chinese family names are a single syllable like Ho or To or So, so things will be worse for people with mile-long Indian or Sri Lankan names like Maharajapuram Kanagaratnum. And what about people in Bangkok (which in Thai is Krungthepmahanakorn) who sometimes have 100 letters in their names?
For this writer, Chineseification has been an interesting experience. Cantonese accents turn the N sound into L and the R sound is often not pronounced at all. At the shop where I buy my daily breakfast, they have been struggling with my name for months. The first month: Noo Ree. Second month: Noo Wee. Third month: Loo Wee. Fourth month: Lewis. This morning, staff politely addressed me as Louise. I didnt object. Louise is a nice name, although its not really me.
But since my name has changed, does this mean my fundamental character is changing? Am I no longer an illuminator, but a French female? I dont notice any change in my dress sense, but if I start hankering for Chanel-scented Gauloises, Ill let you know.