Ever met a guy named Hochiminh Gonzalez? If so, chances are that he was from Venezuela, where a culture of whimsical baby-naming – Maolenin, Superman, Yurbiladyberth! – has flourished. I come from Utah, where there is also a tradition of creative baby naming via odd spellings, Book of Mormon names, and a particular fondness for adding the prefix “La.” Large families had to be inventive to differentiate among so many children. Thus, all the little Nephis, LaFonns and LaVerls. One can’t help but feel relieved that the Mormon church withdrew its missionaries from Venezuela in 2005, saving untold infants from being named LaMaolenin.
I didn’t marry a Venezuelan, but I came close: my husband is Colombian. You’d certainly expect that when a girl from Utah gets married to a guy from Colombia, there’d be a few cultural differences, but I wasn’t too concerned. So what if he came from a country where they liked to dump flour on each other after soccer games? So what if my great-great grandfather had four wives? Alex and I loved each other! Besides, he’d spent half his life in New York City and seemed pretty American. We both liked beef patties and seeing obscure bands play at loft parties, so how different could we be? When we decided to move to Japan, I figured that would just be one more cultural influence to add to the mix. Sushi goes fine with Colombian empanadas and Mormon jello salad.
It wasn’t until I got pregnant that our cultural differences began to rear their little cabecitas. What religion to raise him in? Whether or not to pierce her ears the instant she popped out of the womb? But the biggest one: we just couldn’t agree on what to name the kid. “How about Charlotte?” I’d ask. “No,” he’d respond. “My mother would pronounce it with a hard “ch,” like “charcoal.” Names containing “ch” were out. Also nixed were any Spanish names which contained an “r,” because (despite my best efforts and a childhood full of “Rrrrrruffles Have Rrrrridges” commercials) I was still unable to pronounce the rolled Spanish “r” without sounding as though I were dislodging a hairball. One day, Alex said that he thought the name Stephanie was pretty. Stephanie was the name of my third-grade nemesis, a mean, chubby eight-year-old girl who would never share her Twinkies. We would not be naming our baby Stephanie.
If you knew that most people wouldn’t be able to pronounce a name, would you still use it?
Yes; it will make my child stand out
No; it will make my child stand out
Do you have a name that’s difficult to pronounce? If so, how do you feel about correcting people?
I hate it
I don’t like it, but I’ve gotten used to it
I don’t mind at all
To complicate matters further, since we lived in Japan, we had to take into consideration that if we gave our child any name that contained an “r” or an “l,” the locals would have trouble with it. Alex had already endured months of being referred to as “Arex-san,” and he wasn’t sure he wanted to inflict the same fate on his kid. Lucas was another favorite that was quickly eliminated. Not only would he be called “Roocus,” but it was also the name of Cookie Monster on Plaza Sesamo, the Spanish language version of Sesame Street, an association that for whatever reason Alex felt he couldn’t handle.
In addition to all the other restrictions, we also had to be careful not to choose a name that had a negative meaning in Japanese. So worried is the government about this that they have actually issued a list of characters that people are forbidden to use in naming their children. Some of the restricted names seemed fairly reasonable. It certainly wouldn’t do to have a bunch of kids running around named Bad, Sweat, Naked, Stomach, Ticket and Meat.
One would think it’d be fairly easy to avoid naming your kid something like that, but even innocuous sounding Western names could have quite negative meanings in Japanese. We had to rule out Ben, because in Japanese it means poop. A list of naming guidelines began to form. First off, the name must be able to be pronounced by all family members. Secondly, the name must not remind anyone of either a gluttonous Sesame Street character or a gluttonous third grader.
In talking with other pregnant friends who were also in bicultural relationships, I came to learn that we were not alone in our naming problems. An Irish girlfriend of mine walked into our birthing class one day and announced that her French husband wanted to name their daughter after her vagina. A circle of pregnant faces stared at her in confusion until she explained that her husband was determined to name their daughter “Fanny,” a very popular girl’s name in France but which, in Ireland, is used to refer to a woman’s genitals. I saw then that my problems could be worse.
I realized that some of Venezuela’s whimsical naming customs had seeped over into neighboring Colombia (or at least into my Colombian) when Alex came home one day and announced that we should name the baby “Biji” after one of the characters in our “Japanese for Busy People” textbook. He reasoned that, since we lived in Japan, we should give our child a “Japanese kind of name.” In the book, Biji-san plays the part of the businessman. He is depicted by a round circle indicating a head and a pie-like piece cut out of the circle as his mouth. He is bald and always dressed in a little smock with no pants and a tie. Needless to say, in my opinion, this was not the perfect name.
Two months later our son Nicolas was born, the name decided only three days before his birth. After months of discussion, it was literally the only name we could come up with that didn’t break any of our naming guidelines and that neither of us hated. We decided to call him Nico, both to make the name a bit more original as well as to sidestep the pronunciation problems with the Japanese “l.” It wasn’t the name that either of us really wanted, but oddly enough it turned out to be the right name for him. We found out later that “Nico-Nico” means smiley in Japanese and Nico was a very smiley baby.
Three years later, I’m pregnant again. This time, we’re living in the French-speaking region of Switzerland, where we’re required to choose a baby name from an “approved” government list. If not, we must provide proof that the name we have chosen is “normal” in our home country. In other words, there are probably not many children running around in Switzerland named “Moon Unit” or “Apple.” (Switzerland is not the only European country to have name restrictions. Denmark’s “Names Investigation Department and the Ministry of Ecclesiastical Affairs” rejects up to twenty percent of the names it reviews every year.)
Being a seasoned veteran of the hazards of bicultural naming, I know to expect problems and thus far, I haven’t been disappointed. Max won’t work because in Spanish it’s short for Maximiliano, which for some reason reminds Alex of Mexican mariachi singers. Gisele was quickly shot down because “it’s like the Tiffany of Spanish names.”
But I’m not worried, because even though I know we may very well have to compromise again, I also know now that the name we choose will be the product of our cultural backgrounds as well as the lives that we’ve lived both separately and as a couple. The name we choose for this next baby may not be the perfect one, but it will most certainly be the right one. In the meantime, the other night I dreamed that Alex came home and announced that we should name the baby Fondue. I wonder if that’s on the Swiss list of approved names?