Thursday, April 23, 2009

What's In A Name?

Following up on the conversation I had with Mitchell Irons, I actually do have an issue with names, and with who calls me what.

I think names are important, and what other people call you by is also important. Every Chinese New Year, when my family went visiting, my dad would appraise me of who to call what - there're terms for the varying aunts and uncles, and differ by how far apart you are from them. How you call them immediately enables them to identify who you are, too.

Me, it's also weird like that.

People who've known me since I was a kid or from school call me by my Chinese name. A few call me by the middle character of my Chinese name.

Since I put my given name (middle and last character of my name) in the "first name" fields of any stupid Canadian form that asks for first and last names, most official places invariably end up calling me by that middle character too, which weirds me out.

Even as my official documents don't have my English name, most people here in Canada call me by that, because that's how I introduce myself. It's easy to remember. Somehow the spelling is a bit harder to remember, too, but eh, I live.

Online, I've been going by Jha'Meia (now, more commonly, as just Jha) since 2001. It's a fancification of my chosen English name, and it's easier to type.

I noticed how weirded out I get by different groups of people sort of "transgressing" my name boundaries recently - a friend I met in the middle of my undergrad career, for example, calling me by my middle-character name. She means well - she wants to call me by my "real" name. But the moniker I've chosen is also a real name. Jha'Meia is also a real name. When she calls me by my Chinese name, it feels awkward, because she's not Chinese, and I don't positively identify as Chinese, either. But I let it slide, because I know she means well, and her friendship is important enough that her getting to call me what she wants is cool by me. It's not like she's giving me a completely different name, like how a HS friend started calling me "Gigi" (Malay for "teeth", because my Chinese name can be roughly transliterated into "brushing teeth". Kids are so cruel). That friend never asked me, and she genuinely believed that I would answer to such an insulting name, when in fact I was responding to the sound of her voice. (I stopped correcting her after a while. She's given up that nickname, too.)

I felt a more visceral reaction in another case: I have another close friend who calls me J. OK, maybe she's being fuckass lazy and stuff (lol, I love her), but she also happens to be the only friend who calls me that. She met my latest ex once when he came to help me move, and she called me "J" in his presence. After that, he, too, started calling me "J". He didn't even notice it. He didn't even realize he picked it up from my friend. He thought it was a natural dimunitive that would eventually have shown up on its own in our conversations. Eventually I told him to stop it because it was fuckass lazy, and besides which, only that friend gets to call me that.

But names are important. I use pet-names on very rare occasions, and only for people I see as younger siblings. And by pet-name, I mean something like "sugarkins" or "sweetie" or "luvey". And yes, I am one of those uptight females who gets bothered when well-meaning men of my generation use it on me without realizing how patronizing they sound. It feels even worse when they're younger than me. People older than me get to use them on me with impunity.

I like names. I like my names, because they're mine. It amuses me when I see someone else using the same monikers I do: "jha" for example. There's a Dr. Jha downtown, and it's an Indian name, from what I understand. Which is cool and brilliant for me, but Dr. Jha is not Jha'Meia of Rebellious Jezebel Blogging.

It also gets confusing when I have several friends who all have the same first names, and I have to pause and ask them for their last name - their names are important. The combo of firstname-lastname is also important, with the attending middle names, since they help me identify different individuals in my life.

Which is why linguistic determinism fascinates me. If our language is what limits us, then we are possibly only limited by what labels can be attached to us. Which is both true and untrue.

For example, children feel a myriad of emotions, yes? If we accept that children are human beings, then it stands to reason that they have a vast range of emotions too. However, they have difficulty expressing these emotions and often end up "acting out". Which is one of those things where people are advised to sit their child down and tell the kid to say "I am upset" or somesuch.

Just because they don't have names for what they feel doesn't mean they don't feel them. But at the same time, because they don't yet have those names, their experience is still limited to what they know. Which must be frustrating for the complicated child trying to express all sorts of ideas and being unable to.

Similarly, with some victims of assault, they, too, have trouble naming what has happened to them. Often because they've been told that assault fits into a narrow set of parameters that they do not fit into. They spend a long time reconciling and coming to terms with what has happened to them.

Wait, not victims. Survivors. (See how important this whole naming thing is? The connotations between the two terms, which could both apply to someone who has undergone a heinous violation on their person, are vastly different. But I'm only the observer, I don't get to call them one or the other - that's up to them. Only they can name themselves within the encounter. The rest of us get to give them the support and the language they need to get there. But I don't feel that it's in our place to name it for them. We need that agency to name things ourselves.)

It's important, I reiterate, for us to name stuff, ourselves, in order to define the boundaries of our worlds, and identities.

I probably will have more to say on this topic.

2 comments:

  1. I wrote a rather long comment to this, then firefox decides to go back previous pages rather than delete the mistake I just made (I'm new to the 'fox) and lost it all! Aaah!

    In summary: I love my name but people are obsessed with changing it, questioning it, apologising for assuming I'd be male (I genuinely don't get offended, I'm a secure person!)deciding my feminine middle name or almost feminine name surname is obviously my first name or just addressing me with common variations which I don't mind from friends but from strangers is just plain weird.

    It's given me a slight obsession with names and made me a lot keener on spelling/pronouncing the names of others correctly.

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  2. Jaime: Wow, that whole "I'm gonna pick another name for you because that's gonna suit you better and confuse me less" thing is... a bit messed. That said, I can't say I haven't come across it, actually. I adopted a more "feminine" English name before my current one, and my aunt gave me my current one because the one I chose was "too girly" and I was too much of a tomboy.

    Bizarre how people want to put their own labels on others.

    Welcome to my blog!

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