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Friday, October 24, 2008

"Don't call me your family names!"

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

I don't know if things have changed much, but when I was a kid, playground taunts were a most common form of communication. "Stupid head," "ugly face," and other scathingly witty insults were much more common than kind words and pet names.

So naturally, we had to come up with equally witty defenses against such attacks. And, in good playground-ritual fashion, some of these rhymed.

I'm rubber, you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you!

OK, it doesn't scan so well, but hey, we were eight.

Another one with better scansion and some internal rhyme:

Stick and stones may break my bones,But names will never hurt me!

But for sheer cutting power, we skipped the rhymes and went straight for the marrow:

Don't call me your family names!

Now, I never quite worked out the syntax of this sentence. Grammatically, the plural "names" raises a question. Don't we (Anglo-Americans) just have ONE family name? Mine is just one name, "Baquet." Where did the other ones go?

If what we meant was "family name," well, where's the sense in that? Like somebody's name was "Bobby Stupidhead"? (I've heard worse.) But it's not like we're responsible for the names we inherit. It's not like Tom Green really IS green, or like John McCain is actually the son of Cain (or is he?)

Anyway, I think what we were doing was just associating the whole family with the insult. It's like saying, "You come from a whole family of Ugly Faces!" (Later we learned to hone in on just someone's mother, but I won't go into that here.)

So even as an American kid I knew that " family names" were important, all the more so because we seldom ever said "family name"; the usual question was, "What's your last name?" or the statement, "My last name is..."

Fast forward to my life on the other side of the earth. In East Asia, with her Confucian heritage, the family name comes first. In Japan, the personal name comes last. In China and Korea, there are usually two-part personal names, so what we see as the "last" name is in fact the second half of the personal name.

Take Mao Ze Dong. He is "Chairman Mao," Mao being the family name. What we see last, "Dong," is part of the personal name "Ze Dong" (sometimes even written "Zedong").

What does this have to do with Confucianism? Simply this: Confucius was all about hierarchies. And in East Asia, your family comes before you. In the West, me first! Family second. Furthermore, because of the structures of the languages, one generally says one's company name before one's family name. So in Asia an employee would be "IBM's Smith John," not "John Smith from IBM."

Here is a lifetime assumption that needs correcting: "Last name" does not have a consistent meaning worldwide. And "I" doesn't necessarily come first everywhere.

Let me close with a funny story: For the sake of clarity, I often use "personal name and family name" instead of "first name and last name." Once, while working in Japan, I had to train some teachers by long-distance, sending out manuals, receiving questions by phone and email, etc.

In one part of the manual, I wrote something like this:

"To maintain a friendly atmosphere, teachers should encourage students to call them by their personal names."

Not too long after I sent that out, I got a call from a typically timid (I thought) "new recruit."

"Ummm," he asked hesitantly, "what do you mean by 'personal name'?" So I explained the meaning as above.

Exhalation, laughter, and then "Phew! I thought you meant I should come up with something like 'Raoul the Impaler' or something!"

So much for timidity.

Anyway, one of the reasons I've chosen the expat life is to put myself constantly into situations where my assumptions are challenged and my complacency put on "tilt." You can read a little more about that in my essay, "Rounding and Smoothing."

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