The Name Game

Today I taught a new 3-year-old student named Yutaka. Being that most of my students can barely state their name and age in English let alone anything more complicated, I confidently launched into my usual teaching routine with the expectation of little conversational resistance. I began to flash the first set of vocabulary cards- “Sea Creature Adjectives.” “Feisty Crab!” I sang out, “Funky starfish, adept lobst…” “What’s sea creature?” little Yutaka interrupted me abruptly. “Huh?” I asked, somewhat taken aback by the unexpected verbosity. “Um… sea creatures are animals that live in the ocean.” “Why?” “Well, because it’s a nice place to live and they like it there. Now! Startled turtle, goofy goldfish, gloomy…” “But WHY?” “Why do they like it there and why called animal?” “Um… because that’s the name we gave them.” “My name is Yutaka.” “Yes I know and my name is Anna.” I replied, a bit confused by the change in lesson direction. “Why your name Anna?” At this point I paused and debated whether to explain to Yutaka about how my mother wanted to name me “Lara” after an imaginary friend and my father wanted to name me “Melanie” due to what I can only imagine was a temporary brain hemorrhage and that the only reason I wound up with my current name is that it was the only one they could both tolerate. I knew though that this would only get me started on how my own child is a mere 6 weeks from being born and still being referred to as “Biji san” because his parents can’t come up with a name that they both like and that this whole naming thing is really much much more difficult than he realizes and that the animals are really so lucky just to be called “animals” and not “Biji sans” or “Melanies”.

I then started thinking about how grateful I am that I’m not Japanese because they have to take even more into consideration when naming a child. Not only does the name have to sound good, but it also should have a good meaning as well as the correct number of Chinese character strokes. In addition, the Japanese government has laws banning the use of several rather more unorthodox Chinese characters by Japanese citizens naming their babies. For example, among others, you cannot name your child Disease, Potato, Stomach, Sweat, Dog, or Bad. I’m not exactly sure why the government felt it necessary to actually establish such a law (was there a bunch of people out there naming their children things like “Diseased Potato Mitsubishi” and “Bad Honda”?) but whatever. The point is that it’s easy to see that the name game could be even more complicated than it already is. At least no one’s going to tell me that I can’t name my child “Potato” if I should so choose.  It’s not on our top ten list but it’d still be nice to have it as a last-ditch option right? “Potato Jaimes”? “Stomach Potato Jaimes”?? Hey! We could call him Mac or even Tummy for short and that’s kind of cute isn’t it? Looking into Yutaka’s expectant pint sized face though, I knew that this might possibly be just a bit more of an answer than was required.

“My parents named me Anna because they liked the name. That’s why.” “Why like that name?” Hmm… maybe I should have gone with the longer answer? Is this what I have to look forward to as a parent? Endless rounds of Why? Because. Why? Because. Why? Why? Why???

A few minutes later after singing a song about what we do during springtime, summertime, wintertime, etc, I asked Yutaka if he knew what time it is right now. “It’s ANNA TIME!” he jumped up and shouted as he pumped a small fist in the air. Somewhat startled, I nevertheless exclaimed, “That’s right! It’s Anna Time AND it’s springtime!” A few seconds passed. “But why it springtime?” came the inevitable response.

P.S. Just for those of you who are curious, here’s the full list of Chinese characters that the Japanese are not allowed to use when naming their children:

bad

stomach

potato

sorrow

pig

poison

buddah

floor

sword

hole

blood

ticket

sweat

naked

nose

skin

hair

pee

meat

dirty

mudd

anger

insect

death

smell

swallow