My brother and I were both born in the Unites States, but since we are the first generation (yes only half, but the Japanese haven’t really recognized that we aren’t ‘pure bred’) that means that we had to have traditional Japanese names. Resistance was futile, so my Irish-American mother had to stand by and let the wheels of Japanese superstition turn. A short list of possible names was supplied to my parents by my Obaasan (Japanese for ‘grandmother’). The names were selected based on the Chinese astrological year and the number of strokes in the characters being a lucky combination depending if the baby was to be a boy or a girl. (I was born when gender was still a surprise since ultrasound technology was advanced enough to inform the parents that “yes there is a baby in there and it is not a goat!”) Not every baby in Japan is named with superstitious ju-ju, actually very few are named this way; it would be the same as equating how many children in the US are named with the advice of the psychic hotline.

The resemblance to my brother is uncanny!

The list of names for my brother included ‘Miki’ (Mickey) so my mom jumped at it. It is a hell of a lot easier than trying to give an American kid a name like ‘Zenzaburo’ (yup, you are reading it again slowly now to try to pronounce it, aren’t you?). My mom saw ‘Miki’ and thought “Oh it’s Irish too!” Yes, and in the US it is most commonly a nickname for women named Michelle, and oh lets see, the most famous mouse ever to be conceptualized! It isn’t even a common name in Japan. So no, he didn’t get any flack for his name. Is the sarcasm coming through?

Less than two years later (yes, we are Irish too) my parents were in the same boat and were presented with another list of names. This list was different from the last one because I am not the oldest child, it was a different Chinese astrological year, Jimmy Carter was president, or some other nonsense that means that these aren’t just the leftovers from the last time you procreate. My mom looks through the list and sees ‘Lisa’ Oh my god! Hallelujah! We have a clear winner for “if it’s a girl.”

Lisa is actually a Japanese name too. (I am sure that my dad would say that it was a Japanese name before it was an Italian name, but lets just agree that the name evolved in both east and west, shall we?) So, if my mom was so thrilled that Lisa was on the list, then why is this written by someone named Sumi? Funny thing, after several months of pregnancy and listening to my father refer to my unborn fetus as “Baby Risa” my mom said “ok, that is it, we are naming her Sumi.”

When I was a kid I used to wonder (hell, I still do) what the other six or so names were that “sumi” was the best option. I hated my name. Most kids that have grown-up names do. Growing up with a name that is out of the ordinary makes you the target for childish ridicule; every child goes through it. I won’t pretend that I got the worst of it, since we all know that any child with a name that is slang for human genitalia will win all competitions, or other children whose stoned parents who think names like Anita Jock, Wayne Kerr, and Helen Beck are all cute and/or funny.

Needless to say that there are ethnic names that sound like something else in English. (My dad claims to have interviewed a man for a job whose name was Ashukma Bubei, but I don’t believe everything my dad tells me. When I was five years old he told me that a man had to die in order to film a stunt in a movie. Why he thought this was a fun joke to play on a five year old, I will never know, but the joke was ultimately on him since I’m sure my nightmares kept him up all night too.) However, in their native tongue the names are completely harmless and without innuendo. Although, I wonder if something like “Keiko” wasn’t on the list; perfectly Japanese, yet not as easy of a target to English speakers.

I have been on the receiving end of a wide variety of lawyer jokes, but most people are unoriginal and I hear “Sumi don’t sue me, d’ja get it? Get it; like a lawyer?” The first time I was cognizant of the joke was when I was seven years old, although I am sure people were saying it to me long before then, and I just smiled with deep dimples and showed an expression of joy on my face because someone was talking to me. The most likely reason that I was smiling was that, through my own unscientific survey, I have noticed that most of the people that are commenting about my name are men; and when I was little I had a proclivity for smiling at attractive men who were 25 years my senior and patronizing me (sorry guys that stopped when I was about 9). I don’t know why this is, but it seems that Id is unable to control himself when presented with such an appetizing tidbit, such as my name. I am sure that Freud would somehow make this about a penis or breasts.

So at the tender age of seven I was flabbergasted that my name was now (or at least to me) a target of ridicule, so I decided to Americanize it, and for the span of two weeks in 2nd grade my papers came home reading Sue. But by the end of two weeks I had either gotten bored or realized that there was no way in hell that my personality was that of a “Sue.” Sue is a great name, and plenty of people that have been given that name live up to it wonderfully, but at the age of seven I think I knew that I was a little too strange to go by “Sue.” If I were a boy, this may have been different, thank you very much Johnny Cash.

For some reason I wasn’t inclined to use Photoshop to change the name to “Sumi”

Now that the flood gates were open,  and I was also a victim of name butchering along with all my fellow students it became a field day when the “Garbage Pail Kids” trading cards came out depicting grotesque effigies of wannabee Cabbage Patch Kids that all had disturbing attributes such as Axed Alex, Grimy Gary, or Transsexual Tommy. To the everlasting joy of my classmates there was “Sumo Sid” who was of course a bovine like human dressed in a diaper. Well, what goes better with Sumo than Sid? Sumi! Garbage Pail Kids were a flash in the pan and we moved the next year so the kids at my next school never made the same association because A.D.D. hadn’t been invented yet, so the inability for a child to remember the toy/trading card that they were obsessed with yesterday wasn’t a call for medication, it was a call for parental joy since my mom could throw all the damn things away (I am sure Obaasan bought them for us) and my brother and I wouldn’t notice.

My pin was circular, but looked almost exactly like this! I love Google.

We moved fairly often when I was a kid, so I was used to the barrage of comments that go along with my name. Sumi, don’t sue me! No, I haven’t ever heard that before, you are so original. By the time I was in high school I had come to terms with my name, and the limitations that came along with it. For instance, I could never go into the medical profession because our country runs rampant with medical malpractice lawsuits. And of course a job in law was out of the question… “and representing the defendant in the civil lawsuit is our esteemed partner Sumi…” let me think, uh no. I had a bit of a sense of humor about it and had a pin on my school bag that had an international “NO” symbol with the word “lawyers” going through it. Teenagers being the wonderfully obtuse creatures that they are didn’t always get the joke and I had one girl say to me “My mom is a lawyer, and I find that offensive because I love my mother.”  I looked at her and said “Sumi, don’t sue me, get it?”

This is totally a self portrait.

When you have an ethnically charged name people always want to know what it means and I have always hated having to explain it. As we know, my name was chosen for the number of strokes in it, having been determined to be the luckiest at 13, and yes the irony of growing up in a Christian dominated society in which 13 is the most unlucky number is not lost on me. Be that as it may, the meaning of my name was a tertiary consideration, so I am very lucky in the sense that my name doesn’t mean “tractor,” my name means “beautiful.” Being the awkward fat kid never made this easy because it opened the door to a slew of comments from people about how my parents had gotten it wrong, so I always thought that I needed to explain my whole name so that they wouldn’t be so quick to judge. I would always start out with “well my last name means ‘stone river’ and my first name means ‘beautiful’ so my name is ‘beautiful stone river’.” It always helped that no one ever questioned that in Japanese the family name comes first and therefore makes my English translation less poetic.

Since my hackles were always raised when it came to my name I was already defensive when I had an encounter with a girl in my sophomore biology class whose last name was Brewer (ugh, your name reeks of the English serf class, puh-lease!) She came up to me one day and said “What do YOU think your name means?” No joke, she capitalized the ‘you’ as if to say “oh my god, before you, like, even start, like, talking, I can, like, totally tell that you, like, don’t, like, know anything.” So I went through the schpeal of my name with 20 classmates listening in, which was my nightmare because I was guaranteed that at least 3 of them were going to comment about how ugly I was. She looked at me for about a half a second before she announced to the whole class that I was wrong. She informed me that my name actually means charcoal. In the politest way that I could manage (so for my 15 year old self it probably included the words “you’re a dumbass”) I informed her that, no, I do in fact know the origins of my name. To which she countered that she should know, her mother lived inJapanfor two years. Well, she had me there; my dad had only lived his childhood in Japan, my grandparents currently lived in Japan, and oh yes, my Obaasan (the woman responsible for going to the fortune teller to have my list of names created) does not speak a word of English other than “shopping!” Well, that’s not entirely true, she knows how to say “married” and “baby,” but the question forming words surrounding those are entirely in Japanese.

It has been years since high school, and most people I interact with are mature enough to just think my name is Cindy and I have a speech impediment. However, I still get that look, the one that says “I want to make a joke about your name” when I am introducing myself to new people. I’ve found that the easiest way to lighten the mood is for me to repeat my name again and just say “yup, you’ll be able to remember me, my name is the punch line to a lawyer joke.” I’ve finally grown into my name, and I love it. It’s mine.

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