© Copyright 2010 by Meredith Hodges-Boos
“Meredith Lynn Hodges-Boos…McCartney! Get back here!” My friend Jenni yelled as I took off down the road. Okay, so ‘McCartney’ isn’t really part of my name, but Jenni figured my name was getting so long and ridiculous already, adding one more didn’t hurt.
“But there was a tanuki!” I said, “You all have seen one and I haven’t!” A tanuki is a raccoon dog unique to Japan. They are also famous as statures with huge bellies outside of shops. But my obvious curiosity about it wasn’t rubbing off on my friend or my husband as they watched me dash off towards a bunch of persimmon trees at the side of the road.
“I only saw it for a second, Meru.” Greg said.
“Mine didn’t count, either.” Jenni grumbled as she leaned on her car, “I ran over the bloody thing.”
Over a year ago, I had come to Japan thinking I knew everything. I could speak the language. I had studied the nuances of the culture. I’d been building myself up to participate in the JET Programme since I was fourteen years old. Sure, I’d miss my family, but I had that covered too. I was engaged. Greg, my fiancé was accepted to JET too and we were placed close enough together that we could share quarters. It helped he got to live in a house. Everything had gone according to plan. I felt like some mastermind at the end of a heist. We’d gotten everything we’d wanted.
Now there was a huge map in my analytical mind about how the rest of the time I’d live in Japan would go. It was such a pretty map, decorated with big happy compass rose, North, South, East and West radiating out around the island of Shikoku. The huge title scrolled out across the top in elegant font, “Meredith Lynn Hodges (Soon to be ‘Boos’), the Japan Years.” Finally, the legend translating out what a great time I’d have and how I was ready for anything…Then my first class took my snobbery and shoved it up my nose.
Names signify your being. It is who you are up to that point. How and why you were given your name probably has a special meaning behind it. Maybe your mother’s grandmother’s middle name is now in play or your father’s favorite second cousin’s first name made it to the final cut. If I’d been a boy, my name would have been Kirk because my father is a Star Trek fanatic. Thank goodness for small favors, no offence to any Kirks out there. Most new parents don’t just throw a dart at the baby name book. But no matter how you got it, your name is yours.
The first new name any non-Japanese person usually gets is gaijin or gaijin-san, Mr./Mrs. Foreigner. As the children who lived next door to me soon proved, running up behind us, pointing and yelling, “It’s a Foreigner! Gaijin da!” soon became a town sport in our fishing village. No longer was I Meredith or was Greg, Greg, we were ‘foreigner.’ But they didn’t know us yet. We had expected this and knew as soon as we both started teaching they would learn our names and we’d learn theirs and that would be the end of the whole “Look it’s a Foreigner” Game.
One of the most basic and important phrases in any foreign language is ‘My name is such and such’. Anyone who’s had foreign language training probably learned this in their first class. In fact it was one of the first things many ALTs taught their students. In Japanese the phrase is watashi no namae wa insert name here desu. Or the shortened, insert name here desu if you want to be blunt about it. In most Western countries, your given name comes first not your family name as it does in Japan. This was just one of the many oversights I stumbled over blindly in my tenure as an ALT.
“Your name is what?” I could see the incredulity in their eyes as I spouted it off again, slower this time. It still took almost ten seconds to say. Even the teacher I was assisting looked baffled. The students of High School Class 2-F kept staring.
“‘Meredith’ was my mother’s maiden name. ‘Lynn’ is my father’s first name. ‘Hodges’ is my family name. I’ll get married next August so then my family name will change to ‘Boos’.” I smiled, expecting the same in return. Feeling ever so grown up, I wrote it on the board. Silence. I smiled again. Silence. Then the whispers...
“Weird. Why’s she got a name in the middle?” They don’t have middle names in Japan… “So what do we call her?” The kids turned their eyes back to me and the sweating English Teacher.
“Yes, what would you like them to call you?” The English Teacher asked quickly, ready to get on with it.
“Well, my name is Meredith.” I started. I guess it didn’t make sense to be called Hodges-Sensei since that would change the next year. “So, Meredith is fine with me.”
“Okay, Me-re-de-i-su.” The teacher turned to the class.
“Oh, no” I made the mistake of saying. “It’s more like Me-ru-de-su.”
One of the students laughed. “Meru desu ka?” Or in English, “Are you Meru?”
“Hai. Meru desu.” I’d forgotten lesson one. “Yes, I’m Meru.”
That became my second new name in Japan. From that day on, I lost my old name. To the students, I was not Meru-san, or Meru-Sensei, or even Meru-chan, as some of the teachers called me, I was simply Meru. Two syllable. Very simple. No strings attached. And after a while, the other ALTs picked it up. Then my soon to be husband and even my mom and dad started using Meru to address me.
At first, the loss was unsettling. Part of me was gone. It was a verbal amputation, but with its phantom pains I started to look closer at other people’s names. I wasn’t very good at Kanji characters. Yet another hole in my flawless map I had overlooked. But everyday on the bus I would find myself staring at the driver’s magnetic name plate and the students’ name tags tacked to their uniform lapels. Last names, first names, symbols for trees and rivers and ones that meant two or three different things all squished together like jigsaw puzzles. I worked at eight different High Schools in our prefecture, so I didn’t get to see many of the students more than once or twice a year. I couldn’t remember all their names or even read them and after a while that depressed me. How was I supposed to help ‘internationalize’ anything if I couldn’t make one on one connections with my students?
Then I was called into the Principal’s office one gloomy Monday morning. “Meru-san,” he said, “You must use an umbrella when it rains.”
“I brought one today, sir.”
“No, this weekend you didn’t have one. The students saw you shopping without an umbrella in the rain. They were worried you would get sick and miss their classes.”
This shocked me so much that for a moment all I could do was nod my head and promise not to brave the weather empty handed again. I went back to my desk in the Teachers’ Room and waited for my class to start. When we started the lesson, I kept scanning the class trying to figure out just who had spoken to the principal about my lack of rain gear. But instead of feeling paranoid, I felt strangely giddy and happy. The kids wanted me there…so much so that they tattled on me. It was a strange way to show it but it made all the difference. From that point on, I embraced the new name Meru and threw myself into my job as an ALT with renewed vigor.
Next class I had, I asked for the students to explain their names. It took them a while to get into it, but after a while they started to show pride in what their names meant. Some had kanji names, some had names written in the syllabic hiragana and some had both. Some liked their names and some didn’t. But they all enjoyed telling me and the other students why. For me it was great to see my students expressing themselves in English with such pride. Then they came back to me. They knew me as Meru, but didn’t know why. So I told them about my first class and everyone laughed. “Meru desu.”
Half a year later, I returned to that class after getting married and getting yet another new name. I’d gained the surname ‘Boos’. In America that was a huge deal, but after the honeymoon, it was a relief to return to Japan and simply be Meru again. I could be curious and it was okay if I didn’t understand everything all the time. The students gave me a small party to celebrate my marriage and their present to me was to give me a kanji version of my Japanese name. Even though we didn’t have many classes together, the students and I learned so much from each other.
After two years on the JET Programme, I returned to the states and became an art teacher in an elementary school. During that time, I lost the name Meru and became Mrs. Boos. But I never lost the love of teaching or my curiosity I had found in Japan. My new students loved listening to my stories about my time overseas and many fun projects kept me in touch with students and friends back in our fishing village. Both my old and new students even exchanged New Year’s cards. Written on the back of my American art student’s cards was ‘watashi no namae wa…’, the return cards from Japan came with the words ‘my name is…’
Then, two years after that, I returned to Japan. I was about to get another new name, the name Mother. I wanted to visit my fishing village at least one more time before my daughter was born. Greg wasn’t able to go with me due to his own teaching job, but I was lucky enough to have my own mother accompany me. We stayed with friends and had a wonderful visit. During our stay we went to a Tug of War contest in another town I had worked for. I wandered in, the only blond head in a sea of dark hair and expected to hear the usual chorus of ‘gaijin da!’. But instead, a little girl, named Sara strode over to me with big eyes and proclaimed, “Look, it’s a blond tanuki!” She pointed to my round belly and grinned. I blinked. Another new name…one that baffled my mother. But I only grinned back at the girl and drummed on my stomach. “Yes, and baby tanuki will be here in about two months.” I told her. Later, I explained to my mother that a tanuki was a raccoon dog in Japan. “But I’ve never gotten to see a real one. Jenni and Greg did though.” Mom was so amused, she ended up buying every little tanuki souvenir she could get her hands on in honor of my new name.
Before we left, many friends and past students gathered for a very important event. My daughter’s name was painstakingly broken down and each syllable was given its own special character. Now my ‘little tanuki’ also has more than one name too. In America she is ‘Kyrie’ and in Japan her name means ‘Precious Village Treasure.’ As we left for the airport in the predawn light, my calligraphy sensei handed me a plaque with Kyrie’s name written in kanji. Clutching it in the backseat of the car, I watched my fishing village disappear as we crested the mountain.
I had come full circle thanks to my JET experience,
from Meredith Lynn Hodges-Boos, to Meru, to Mrs. Boos, to Mrs.
Tanuki, to soon to be Mother, and back to Meredith Lynn Hodges-Boos
again. It had been a lovely trip and my mother was fighting back
tears that we had to leave so soon. I patted my belly and wondered
when was a good time to start planning Kyrie’s first trip to
Japan. Suddenly, our friend hit the breaks and we squealed to a halt.
“Ah, Meru, look!” She cried. There, standing in the
headlights, was a real, honest to goodness, Japanese raccoon dog. The
tanuki blinked as we stared at each other then scampered away into
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)
Another story by Meredith