I'm making a conscious effort to get better at remembering people's names. I'm still pretty good at recognizing faces, but over the last few years, my capacity for names seems to have diminished,
and it really bugs me. It's a basic courtesy to call people by their correct names; after all (apologies to Shakespeare), there's plenty in a name.
Most people believe that one's given name has a part in shaping one's personality. In many cultures, including Hawaiian, the giving of a name is an important, spiritual event. And the names we acquire or adopt speak volumes about the people we are. So what's in a name? Our heritage, our destiny, our ego. And sometimes just a good story.
According to the Social Security Administration, the most popular baby names in Hawaii last year were Noah and Isabella, much more exotic than the Michael and Susan of 50 years ago. I think that's why great nicknames are so rare these days - who needs a clever moniker when you're already named Serenity (No. 75) or Kayden (No. 79)?
The men of my parents' generation had nicknames as colorful as their personalities. I have fond childhood memories of Uncle Fish, Uncle Friday, Uncle Banjo and other of my father's friends. Two of my real uncles were called Cabbage and Balloon. My dad's nickname was Doc, but before he became a dentist, he was known as Mush. It was a play on his given Japanese name, Masayoshi.
I'm sure it annoyed my grandmother to hear her eldest son's auspicious name, which means righteous and honorable, reduced to a bowl of oatmeal. Many issei (first-generation Japanese) gave their Hawaii-born children Western middle names like Alice and Robert, but took great care in choosing their Japanese first names. Most were poetic, some purely practical. A common first name for boys was Ichiro, which means first son. Just as common was Jiro, or second son, and Saburo, third son.
The second-generation Japanese Americans continued the tradition of giving their children meaningful Japanese names, but usually as a middle name. My parents were more old-fashioned, and they named me Sadae Katherine.
Sadae Katherine Yogi. All through my early grade school years, I hated that name. Never mind that my initials spelled SKY - which actually was pretty cool - or that my last name inspired endless taunts of "Hey, Yogi Bear! How's about some pic-a-nic baskets," it was that foreign first name I despised. I was the only kid in my class with a Japanese first name, and a nontraditional one at that. No one else was named Sadae. The only name I hated more was Sadie, which is what the teachers always called me on the first day of school, reading from their class lists. Every year, I'd cringe and say, "It's Suh-dye, not Sadie, and I go by Kathy."
At least the teachers at Japanese school could pronounce it correctly. Like many other third-generation Japanese, I was sent to language and culture classes after school, usually conducted by the minister of the local Buddhist temple. My Japanese school was at Makawao Hongwanji, where we all were called by our Japanese names. One year, our new teacher, Yosemori Sensei, used a whole class session to translate our names for us.
"Hajime means beginning. You must be the first son in your family . . . Sachiko, your name means joyful child . . . Harumi, beautiful spring." And so on.
I was the only girl in class whose name didn't end with "ko" (child) or "mi" (beautiful). When Sensei got to me, he paused for a moment before declaring, "Sadae . . . it means all the best things in life, put together." For the rest of the afternoon, nothing could wipe the grin off my face. I couldn't wait for Mom to pick me up so I could tell her how much I liked my name, now that I knew what it meant.
After I repeated what Sensei had said, my mother told me I was lucky to have such a kind and thoughtful teacher. She explained that she had made up the name by combining her own name with her sister's - Sadami and Yaemi. My name did indeed have meaning, but not in the traditional way that everyone else's did.
Many years later, I finally met another Sadae. She was around my mother's age, and I don't know how she got her name, but when I told her the story, she laughed and agreed that Sensei was a wonderful teacher indeed.
His full name was Chikai Yosemori, and he eventually became bishop of the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii, retiring four years ago. I couldn't find an exact translation of Chikai, but possible root words include wise and good, appropriately. Regardless of its meaning, it's one name I'll never forget.
* Kathy Collins is a performance artist, broadcaster and freelance writer whose "Sharing Mana'o" column appears every Wednesday. Her email address is email@example.com.