I am a true believer in the power of a name. Perhaps it is because as a writer, I know the power words can have to change mindsets and attitudes. Perhaps it is because I grew up with the story of how my name came to be, and saw how it came to be both a self-fulfilling prophecy and revealing of my true personality. Perhaps it is just because there is always a story behind each person’s name, and I love stories. Mine begins in Saigon, where I was born to a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother. Whenever I tell people this, I always get the same reaction–“That’s a strange combination”. Having never known any different, I really can’t say why this is, but purely from a personality standpoint, I can say my parents are two entirely different people.
Though both my mother and father grew up poor in war-torn countries, their stories are very different. My father tells me stories of hiding out in the mountains of Korea from Japanese soldiers, and moving from city to city as my grandfather searched for work. My mother wielded a machete to make her way through the jungles near her village in Vietnam while she scrounged for firewood and stole fruit from the trees of neighbors. My father is a second son of six children, a golden boy who began providing for his family at a young age, helping to put his sisters through school. My mother is the second-oldest daughter, but 3rd from the youngest of my grandmother’s eleven children, growing up in a very Catholic family. My father loves music, art, and museums. My mother was forbidden from reading novels with our family’s strict Catholic upbringing, but there wasn’t much money for novels anyway. Before he came to Vietnam, my father had traveled all over, taking photographs with his Nikon and reportedly, as my mother teases him, leaving a trail of broken hearts. My mother was betrothed to marry a boy from the next village over, but having never been there or met him, finagled her way out of the engagement by “forgetting” to notify him of her father’s death, thereby prolonging the time he would traditionally have to wait to marry her from 3 months to 3 yrs (after the mourning period for her father had ended). My father, a cultured man 17 years my mother’s senior fell madly in love with the determined young village girl, even going so far as converting from Buddhism to Catholicism to obtain permission from my grandmother to marry.
When I was born, my parents consulted a numerologist for help in naming their first-born daughter. This to me is one of the most puzzling parts of the story. When the story was told to me when I was a child, it was said as matter of factly as one might say “And then we took you home from the hospital.” Looking back on the story now, I have a multitude of questions. How long does such a process take? Where might one find a good numerologist in Saigon? Was his or her name on a bulletin board in the waiting room of the hospital? Was this a normal part of the naming process for everyone at that time? My father was a fire chief, then a field engineer for the American military base in Saigon, work that is very concrete and physical. My mother is the most practical person I’ve ever met. The concept of a numerologist being part of the naming process for these 2 people does not fit. And yet, that is what I am told happened next. This numerologist took all of our numbers, which I assume consisted of dates of birth for my mother, father, and me, and perhaps the time of my birth, and decided that I would be the peacekeeper between my mother and father, because they are such different people. Thus my first name and middle name are meant to be said together, translating roughly into “the source of peace and happiness.”
I was in elementary school at the time I heard this story. If you have children of your own, you realize early on that they arrive in this world with certain personality traits and qualities that emerge and persist. My two daughters are both perfectionists. My oldest is soft-spoken and prefers to avoid the spotlight. My middle child is not soft-spoken, and prefers to do things her way. My son is perceptive about people, and sensitive to their emotional states. These are characteristics which are innate to them, ones that I cannot change, even if I were to try, and nothing that I knowingly taught to them. From childhood, even before I heard the story of my name, I strived for accord between my friends or other children on the playground. Am I who I am today because of my name? Or was it just serendipitous that my name reflects the personality with which I was born? I can’t recall consciously deciding to be someone who brings happiness and peace to others, as it seems to me to a worthy goal for any and every person, but did the knowledge of my name help to firm my nascent and innate desire to be a peacemaker? Without a time machine, it is a mystery to know how different each of our lives might have been with different names. Was the fact that my name’s meaning is positive change my perception about my life’s path? I look at some of the more unusual baby names and wonder what will become of these children named Puppy or Pepsi. My children are not named Puppy or Pepsi.
When my sister was born, here in America, my father asked for my help in naming her. Thinking about this now, this also strikes me as strange, given that I had just turned 8. I took the task very seriously though. Being a very literary little girl, I went to my favorite stories. At the top of my list of names was Josephine, for my favorite character in Little Women, and Sara after Sara Crewe from The Little Princess. These girls were brave, smart, and kind. These are the characteristics I hoped for in my first and only sister. My father took my list of suggestions and actually chose one of the names I had provided. And my sister is brave, smart, and kind. I can’t take any of the credit for these virtues though I did help to name her. She was born that way.
Today, I am thankful for my baby sister. Sis, I’m sorry I forgot to warn you not to read this one in public. I am grateful that my parents put thought into naming me and all of my siblings, and that none of us have names that might predispose us to being serial killers. And as always, I am thankful for the power of names and words to change lives.
I love to hear stories of names. So please feel free to share yours. What is the story behind your name or the names you chose for your children or pets? Do you think the meaning behind your name had any effect on who you are? Did you change your name, and if so, why?
Here is an article about the unusual names people have chosen for their babies in 2013, Pepsi and Puppy being real names, unfortunately:
The time machine I would use to explore alternative universes in which my name was not influenced by the numerologist.