When I was in school, I remember thinking that Americans gave their children strange names. “Whitney Houston?” I asked my best friend, Paul when we were browsing in HMV. “What kind of a name is that?”
“It’s an African-American name,” said Paul who, even at 15, knew everything in a way that, if it had been anyone else, would have made you look for the nearest bus to push him in front of. “They like unusual names, like Toni and Oprah, Maya, Tellulah, Dinah, Mariah and Aretha.”
I went home and told my mother. She sniffed that the Americans had nothing on the Chinese. “Your Auntie Mary just called her baby girl Precious Jade, and let me tell you that there’s nothing precious nor jade-like about that ugly child!” To which my horrified father said that this was not the sort of thing one said in front of impressionable children like his son.
“Well, it’s true!” my mother went on stubbornly. “Have you seen that baby? Well, I have and you’d have to be blind to name her Precious Jade!”
As it turned out, Precious Jade grew up to be juvenile delinquent and when she was hauled before the magistrate’s court for breaking and entering our local library, Mother was triumphant.
“Stupid Rock would have been a better name for her!” she said. “Who’d ever heard of anyone trying to rob a local council library? What, did she think there was a big black market for the 1994 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary? Poor Auntie Mary, I must call to see how she’s coping with this scandal!”
And then, one day, after I was all grown up, I visited my brother Jack in Hong Kong, and that was when I found new champions in the category of “What Were Your Parents Thinking When They Named You That?”
At a party thrown by my brother, I was introduced to a pair of identical twin girls wearing matching Chanel boots and a Karl Lagerfeld dress. (I know they were Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld because my sister was with me, and she can spot a label from ten paces.)
“Jason, I want you to meet…” Jack paused and pursed his lip in an effort not to laugh, “…I want you to meet the lovely Yuan sisters, Million and Billion.”
I blinked. “Uh, hello?”
“You can call us Milly and Billy!” the girls sang in their melodic Hong Kong accent.
“Wait a minute,” my sister said. “Your names are Million and Billion?”
“Million and Billion Yuan?”
From across the room, Jack shouted, “And their surname is written just like the currency!”
Two days ago, my flatmate Saffy came back from her friend Jane’s baby shower. “Can I just say that it’s taken me an hour to get home from Jurong East? I feel like I should have brought my passport!” Her formidable bosom rose like shifting continental plates.
“How was the baby shower?” I asked.
Saffy paused. “I don’t want to be rude, but some people have some very strange ideas about what’s acceptable to call their children. Jane’s expecting twins, as you know, and guess what she’s going to call them?”
Saffy stared at me. “Guess!” she said, finally.
“Oh, you weren’t being rhetorical! Uhm, Million and Billion?” I hazarded.
“Not even!” Saffy puffed. “Even those would have been acceptable names. No, she and that dolt husband of her’s are going for, wait for it, Messiah and Concept!”
You could practically see the italics hanging in the air.
It turned out that Jane is an editor at a magazine and two of the interns working there are called Messiah and Concept, and she’s so taken by the names she’s going to call her off-spring the same things.
It’s all Saffy has been able to talk about since then. “Messiah? Isn’t that a lot of pressure to place on a child?” she posted on Facebook.
“What if he grows up to be a bus driver?” she wondered aloud this morning at breakfast. “Or what if he has a lisp? A lisping Messiah! How uninspiring would that be? Or what if Concept turns out to have the IQ of a door-knob?”
What I wanted to know, I said, was what Jane thought the other kids at school would do to her children the minute their names were announced to the class.
“If they’d been in my class when I was growing up, they’d never have survived to recess,” Saffy said firmly. “Did I tell you when I was in the third grade, I made five boys in my class cry?”
Their crime: they were making fun of her name.