What’s in a Name?

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By PATRICIA E. TAKAYAMA

(Note: This story originally ran on Discover Nikkei, a project of the Japanese American National Museum. For more information, visit www.discovernikkei.org.)

Last month, I attended a workshop sponsored by Discover Nikkei and the Japanese American National Museum on “Nikkei Names” at the Democracy Center. We were instructed to write about our names and share our writing. As my name told nothing about me, I made up a story instead. Since then, I worked my way through some possibilities.

If I had been born a boy, my parents would have named me Theodore. I often wondered how they chose that name. I’m sure it was not after President Theodore Roosevelt, as my parents were apolitical. Probably, the connection was closer to home.

Years later, I learned that my father attended North Hollywood High School, and being the jock that he was (he played baseball in the Nisei Leagues, traveling as far north as Florin for tournaments), he went out for pole-vaulting, where there was less competition to letter.

As a jock, he admired other athletes who could compete on the high school teams, especially those athletes who played varsity baseball or football. That’s where the name Ted came in. Ted Yoshiwara not only played varsity baseball, but he also played football, where praise was heaped upon standouts, like Ted, not only by the Japanese American community but by the entire school and neighborhood. He was recognized all over the San Fernando Valley and possibly at Roosevelt, Dorsey or Manual Arts high schools, if the games took them to L.A. that season.

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As for my name, Patricia, I think it was just one of those trendy popular names, like Lauren or Ashley or Stephanie. Being a second child, my parents wanted to be seen as “All American.” I often wondered about that because my father was very conservative, so it must have been my mother’s influence.

My mother was a Kibei who returned to California in 1939, just in time for the outbreak of WWII and internment. Her response to the camps was to learn to speak English without an accent and assume the all-American family veneer. As a consequence (being the second girl child), my parents declined to retain the cultural tradition of giving me a Japanese middle name, like most Sansei – Setsuko, Akemi, Hiroko.

My parents named me Ellen. Where did that come from? I wondered. Was it short for Eleanor Roosevelt or the famous tap dancer Eleanor Powell? I don’t think so. It wasn’t a trendy name, as I never ran into anyone with the name Ellen at school. I suspect it was the name of a neighbor in Chicago. Separated from family and isolated from other Japanese, I suspect my mother sought out more experienced neighbor ladies for advice on child rearing. Perhaps naming her daughter after the woman was a way of showing gratitude.

I don’t know if this story is true, but I can’t imagine where my parents would come up with an unusual name like Ellen. It does not have a lyrical quality about it, nor is it part of a popular song. If my name was not derived from a friend or acquaintance, then where or what prompted my name? It is a mystery to me.

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Living in tenement housing in Chicago was a far cry from shared barracks at Manzanar or farming in North Hollywood or a small house in Glendale. Multiple families lived in close quarters but separate, self-contained units. Shared hallways and open windows brought the sounds of a multitude of languages into the separate units, with the common language being English.

For five years my mother learned English listening to her neighbors shouting at one another. This is the English she passed along to her children. At least, I thought it was English, until I started elementary school.

I knew when my grandmother snapped at us, “abunai” or “urusai,” she was speaking in Japanese, but when Mother spoke, unless she was repeating Grandmother, we (or at least I) thought she was speaking English.

Much to my surprise, when the cloth worn over my head and tied beneath my chin was referred to as a scarf, I wondered what the teacher was talking about. Wasn’t it called a “babushka”? The teacher must have been surprised that I spoke Russian. How did I know that I was speaking Russian?

I must have been in fourth grade when I heard the Mexican children say, “God bless you” after someone sneezed. My German girl friend and I always said “gazoontite.” How was I to know that this odd expression, “Gesundheit,” was German and not English? I heard it in the movies too, so it must be English.

Learning American English was not an easy task. Young children have it easier now. TV introduces new vocabulary directly into the home with games and geography. Most children, even in other countries, are learning American English, as Southern California, the film capital, is our backyard. Our ex-governor, Arnold, has popularized such expressions as “No problema” and “I’ll be back.”

With the globalization of our vocabulary and the cultural mixing of our populace, Jose Takeuchi or Akiko Hershog or Eric Satoshi Kwon are no longer uncommon names. Soon it will be necessary to insert a middle ethnic name to link any ancestral heritage that otherwise might be lost in connecting to one’s identity.

What is in a name might be the only clue as to a person’s identify.

Patricia Takayama grew up in the San Fernando Valley and went to college in the San Francisco Bay Area. She lived in Tokyo on two different occasions for almost four years. While studying Japanese in Tokyo, she met other Nikkei from Brazil, Peru and Argentina. She says, “With my one year of college Spanish, it was our common language for communication.”

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