What’s in a Name?

by Timothy Ang

Let me introduce myself.

My full name is Timothy William Sey Ang. I was named after a person from the bible and it means to “honor God”. I do not follow that tenet as often as I should. As for “William”, we followed the tradition of having my father’s name. “Sey” is my mother’s maiden name. “Sy” is more common but my grandmother came from an impoverished background and had difficulty with spelling. As a result I have relatives with “Siy”, “Sy”, and “Sey” for last names. “Ang” is the family last name. As for my siblings, my brother Ted was named after the American newscaster Ted Koppel and my sister Stephanie after the Princess of Monaco. And Tom, my youngest brother? My mother said, “well, we couldn’t find any other names that started with T.” A fact that has yet to be disclosed to him.

I teach English to both Japanese and foreign students. It’s a cavalcade of various names at the international college. I’ve learned that Koreans have many Kims; Vietnamese have a lot of Trans and Phuongs; and Thais will have last names such as “Thammathong”. My tongue simultaneously yearns for a challenge and a sabbatical from all the pronunciation gymnastics. Next are my Japanese students whose names have shown the complexity of kanji: the system of writing the Japanese language in Chinese characters. Despite being pronounced the same way an “Akihiro” can take on several meanings depending on how it is written, which can range from “infinite love” to “dawn of superiority”. As a side note, my surname “Ang” in Chinese means “red” and written the same way in Japanese means “flood”. It seems my family legacy has turned from a reverent color to a natural disaster.

By the way, I have a confession. Most professors can quickly rattle off names of all their students while I unfortunately struggle to remember only a handful by the end of the semester. To explain, my brain justifies this by boiling down remembering names into two categories, ones who excelled in class or those that have spectacularly failed. Adding to this I’ve taken to discreetly naming a few of them in the ways of ancient Greek conventions. For example, I have taught two Shunsukes: Shunsuke the Smart and Shunsuke the Lazy, the adjectives are self-explanatory. Joking on this matter masks my shame of failing the basic responsibility of remembering names and I will have to address this next year with mandatory name tags or mnemonic devices.

I’ve had a couple nicknames. Most of my students call me “Timmy”, others say the double respectful “Mr. Timmy-sensei”. Honestly, being called sensei does bring a measure of pride and if I decide to pursue a doctorate, being called Doctor Timmy is even more appealing. With colleagues, Timothy feels too formal, although I use it for publishing in journals or making presentations at conferences. Most friends refer to me as “Timmy” but lately I’ve grown out of it so I prefer the plain vanilla “Tim”. As my name is getting shorter I hope I don’t become a single letter. During conversation, I call some people by “dude”, “bro” and “man”. Apparently I’m the only one that calls people by “chief”. Lastly, there is an ongoing experiment on a colleague of mine. I’ve been including “san”, a Japanese name suffix sign of respect to both his first and last name. So far he has not given any indication of his preference.

Names permeate through the monotony of daily life. I get quizzical looks because “Timothy” is a western name placed on facial features that are similar to the local populace. At the neighborhood Starbucks I say my name is “Timmy” and yet hear the name “Jimmy” called out when my order is ready. I wonder if this is an ode to the famous comedian Jimmy Onishi who is known for his proclivity of mispronouncing English words. On top of this, filling forms can be a challenge. During a visit to any establishment, typing my full name on an application form is a nail biting thriller of whether their systems will allow the length of my entire name thereby running the risk of blowing up the mainframe.

Formalities in referring to yourself in the first person in Japan can get confusing. You use “atashi” then you’ve just made yourself a woman. Using “washi” gets you the ojisan (old man) treatment. There are instances where pretending to be a samurai (“ashii”) can be a great way to break the ice. Most of the time I use “boku” but “ore” can be used in the right casual settings, even in an office environment. But when in doubt always use “san”. Furthermore, regardless of the situation, tone along with gestures are important when saying a name, a look of slight anger and raised voice universally implies disappointment or frustration. And as a general rule, in any language, referring to yourself in the third person will most likely christen you as the village idiot.

What’s in a name? Well, plenty it seems.