The Need for Name tags

In a perfect world, we’d all wear name tags, fully monogrammed sweaters and totes, or at least rock our names in the form of namey pendants. I can’t get anyone’s name right. I am floundering in a sea of Kanako, Kotoka, and Kioko, or was it Kayoka. I’m bogged down in name-worry when I hear, “Ohiyo, Melissa San”. And I say, “Ohiyo… you… ko?”


Faces I’m good at. Knowing someone’s personal style, the way they tilt their head, whether they’ve just gotten a hair cut—these are my specialties. But names? In Japan, I am absolutely ridiculous. And then, even if I do know the person’s name, I become so socially nervous about whether I will remember the name, that I create several possibilities of what it may be, and I then forget my (usually correct) starting point. It’s gone, too twisted and turned to know north from west, ue from shita (top from bottom). 

This doesn’t happen with names like Dave or Scott, Amir, Kadesha, or even Pedro Velasquez Jose Domingo Rivera. My time teaching in the largely Guatemalan neighborhood within Lake Worth, Florida, gave me that skill. It’s the Ko, the Ka, the Yu vs Yo, Haru vs Hiro within larger names that flit away, making it difficult to be a friendly adult reciprocating greetings left and right.

(Is it Yumono or Yukamo…Kayuma??? They are endlessly shifting, rearranging themselves before my eyes).


Now it’s not all tough beans; parents at the kids’ school call me “Kariin-Chan no Mama”, equilavalent to the very personal (or not) “Kariin’s Mom”. This is cultural. I have no doubt they can remember Melissa. I am the only foreigner there. I figure, perhaps self-centeredly, that my name may be a respite in the graceful, glittering sea of “Yumi” or “ko, ka, ki” and so on. They have to do something a bit differently with their mouth. Maybe my name is exotic. Maybe I am like the Swedish exchange student who landed in my seventh grade science class. But I shouldn’t be the one with the name tag. All the forty something students should please pen their name, plastered to shirts with a smile. I’ll take whole names, nicknames, and a handy caricature to help me keep it all straight. And please don’t write it in the complicated brushstrokes of Kanji. If I am to learn what to call you, let me do it right.

But without your name tag, I may have to divulge my secret that six months later, I really don’t know your name and could have an anxiety attack if you ask me. Seriously. One can go past the acceptable point of asking for a reminder. I’ve been there, just holding my breath for my more-than-acquaintances to stare me in the eye and squawk, “You really don’t know my name, do you?” At which point, I will try to stifle the rising feel of anxiety-induced throw up, reach in my bag and toss them an adhesive blank name tag and a Sharpie. “Gomen!! I’M SORRY!” I’ll scream as I run out of the room or lurch from the sidewalk into the busy street.

Happy six years to my hub and I landing in Japan. What can I say? I’m lucky I know his name.

5 thoughts on “The Need for Name tags

  1. This is so true! I’m always confusing my Japanese students’ names, even though I know their faces! After the umpteenth time, it’s a little embarrassing to ask again!

  2. Hilarious! I love your constant sense of humor about the intricacies of settling in a foreign land. P.s. I CAN’T believe it’s been SIX YEARS!? Wowzers. Missing our morning skype meetings, but hope you’re enjoying the rest of your summer (say hi your mama for me!) xo!

  3. Pingback: Forgetting and ‘Membering | Melibelle in Tokyo

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