Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Boy Named Xum

One day back in August 2004, I was fortunate enough to interview actress Maria Canals-Barrera (voice of Hawkgirl) for a Justice League article I was writing for the original “Comics 2 Film” website. As we were wrapping up, Maria complimented me on my name because it was so unique, and asked what kind of name it was.

What kind of name is “Xum”?

It’s a strange name that makes people stop and think a moment before they attempt to pronounce it. Well, at least in Britain, continental Europe, and the U.S., where I was called upon in many a classroom, job interview, and doctor’s office as “Ecks-Huhm” (always said very slowly and cautiously) or worse, “Exhume?” (usually in the form of a question, but sometimes stated with confidence [which sounds more worse]). In Asia – at least in Malaysia, China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Japan – most people were able to say my name (sounds like “Zoom”) without any trouble.

So is “Xum” an Asian name? It does have Asian origins. I am the product of a Japanese-American father and Chinese-Malaysian mother. So my name is part Asian, and part… well, made up.

I only said that last part in my response to Maria, which prompted her to say, “You never asked your parents where they got ‘Xum’ from?”

And up until that moment, I never thought to ask them. I knew I had an unusual name – and as a kid it was essentially a “funny” name that often invited juvenile ridicule and harassment as funny names tend to do. But the name Xum had always signified me for as long as I could remember, so I was used to the taunts and other people struggling to say it. And while I was far from being the “respectful Asian son,” I never resented my parents for giving me this strange name. Nor had I questioned my parents about the origin of it.

So the following holiday while visiting my parents, I decided to ask them where my name came from in the middle of an afternoon tea. The question seemed to make them a little uneasy, but my parents did give me an explanation. Since I was conceived at a time when ultrasound was at its own infancy, they used a time-honored Chinese method of predicting the gender of their unborn baby.

(I have to say that this was a bit surprising to me because my parents are not typically “traditional” – neither for Chinese nor Japanese customs – in fact, it has been looked upon as rebellious by both of their families that they decided to marry each other in the first place, but that’s another story altogether...)

At any rate, this prediction method was known to be accurate over 90% of the time. However, that means it can also be inaccurate almost 10% of the time – and I am living proof since this method told them they would be having a girl. So my parents had a Chinese girl’s name picked out fairly early during the pregnancy: “Xue” (which means “snow”, symbolizing tranquil purity). Of course, when they realized I was a boy, they quickly changed “Xue” to “Xum” (which has no meaning because it is completely made up) so it would sound like a boy’s name.

Now, they didn’t tell me the reason why they essentially created a male-sounding name at what seems to be a spur of the moment. Perhaps they were so very much in love with the name “Xue”, or maybe there was so much deliberation by my parents before they agreed upon that choice (or possibly a little of both), that when they were surprised with the arrival of this bouncing baby boy, they decided to simply “man up” the name they had already picked for a daughter rather than start all over to figure out a suitable name for a son. Maybe they already had “Xue” typed up on the birthing document and this was the easiest way to “fix the mistake” (I admit I may be reaching here, but my birth cert is a very old certified copy so I cannot tell either way by looking at it).

Actually, I will never know about this part of the story, at least not in this lifetime, for both my parents had passed away the following year. But it really doesn’t matter, neither now nor during that awkward December tea. No, what mattered at that time was how uncomfortable and embarrassed my parents sounded as they told me this story. Being the great parents that I only now realize that they were, they were very well aware of the taunting and teasing I received as a child. Maybe they felt a bit… guilty… about the difficulties that came from the name they gave me. I was quick to explain that they had no reason to be. I even shared with my parents what Maria told me during our interview regarding her thoughts about my name. This made them laugh and feel very proud, and made the rest of what was actually our last holiday together much more enjoyable.

So what kind of name is “Xum”?

According to Maria Canals-Barrera, “It’s a great name. It’s so different, like a ‘rock star’ name. People may have trouble pronouncing it with the X… but once you figure it out, it sounds real cool.”

Now that’s the kind of name I’d like to have. Lucky thing that I do.

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