I love my name. Whether it’s Saya Abney or アブニー 紗耶, my name expresses my mixed cultural heritage and preserves a bit of family history. “Saya,” from my mother’s middle name, is a combination of the names of my great-grandmothers Sada Shimizu and Suya Nakamura. I don’t even know the man who gave my father the name Abney, but my uncles and cousins share it, so it’s a reminder of the importance of family connections in my life.
Growing up in the American South, however, my name was pretty unusual and was butchered quite often. (The last few years were the weirdest — after introducing myself, people would ask if my name was “like the singer,” and I realized quickly that Sia’s name is mispronounced just as often as mine is.) These different reactions fueled my fascination with names — “Saya” is just two syllables when pronounced phonetically, which would be the norm in Japan. But in the United States, people expect “unique” names to be difficult to pronounce and will sometimes even give up attempting an accurate pronunciation.
Was I expecting too much? Was young Saya’s frustration with people mispronouncing their name unreasonable?
In high school Mandarin, I learned that in Chinese, my name would be 沙耶, or Shāyé. While in English, names are usually just translated by approximating sound, name translations from Japanese to Chinese (and vice versa) are notoriously confusing. Standard practice is to use the characters of a name, or their closest approximation, and use the pronunciation of the language you’re translating to. However, this can lead to people not even recognizing their names in the other language.
My case is a simple one, as clear-cut equivalents of both characters exist in written Chinese, and the pronunciation doesn’t diverge much. But the concept of having a difference so vast that people can find their own names unrecognizable is mind-blowing.
Chinese and Japanese differ from English in that the written word in these two languages holds so much more significance than it does for English. While my name kanji, 紗耶, was chosen by my grandmother to indicate the meaning “refreshing,” there are multiple other kanji that could be exchanged to form the same sound with different meanings. A phenomenon increasing in popularity in Japan is to discard the dictionary readings of characters altogether, assigning a set of kanji arbitrarily to any particular name, as the readings for names are usually given with the characters anyway.
My name kanji means a lot to me. I love that my grandmother picked the characters, and I love the elegance of the characters themselves. Exchanging name kanji — something I had never had the opportunity to do before arriving at UC Berkeley and meeting more Japanese students — is wonderful. It’s sharing a second part of yourself, the name behind your name, characters that convey something about your family and your identity.
While I’m glad I was given a family name, I know there are many situations in which people dislike the names they were given at birth. It’s particularly common for transgender and genderqueer people like myself to change names as part of transitioning. But the dual significance of a kanji name allows for a unique situation — to keep part of a given name but change part of the meaning.
Many common given names in Japanese are gender-neutral. But some change from being more popular girls’ or boys’ names depending on their corresponding kanji, and many kanji names can be associated with specific popularly male, female or gender-neutral readings.
Changing a name might be desirable for many reasons — distancing oneself from the past, gender presentation, personal affirmation and simple aesthetics are only a few. When it comes to names with kanji, though, it becomes possible to mix past and present by changing only the reading or the kanji. “What’s in a name?” becomes a much more complicated question, but also one with a realm of interesting opportunities.
For me, my name is a point of pride. I place a lot of value on family, and having a family name holds all the more significance for that. To me, to be given a name that I love is a precious gift, and one that I wouldn’t give up for anything. I’ve lucked out, and I’m very thankful for that. Maybe this is why I was always so protective of my name growing up — my name carries a part of me and deserves to be treated with dignity.
In Natsume Soseki’s classic “I Am a Cat,” the titular protagonist reflects that “the fact that nobody, even to this day, has given me a name indicates quite clearly how very little they have thought about me.” Names are important, and to be given a name that one loves is a gift or, as Natsume’s cat says, a mark of esteem. Conversely, living with a name you dislike, no matter who gave it to you, may be a curse. Rather than forgoing proper recognition like Natsume’s unnamed cat, it’s important that you think of yourself as well. Giving yourself a more fitting name can constitute the self-respect you deserve.
What’s in your name? Only you can know.