Small islands in the Seto Inland Sea such as mine are visited periodically by health care boats with doctors, nurses and medical equipment on board to offer health exams for islanders. The boat makes the rounds of all the small islands that belong to Okayama Prefecture, making it possible for even the elderly and bed-ridden to take advantage of certain medical services.
As I walked onto the medical boat, the girl at the reception handed me a form to fill out. Forms are always problematic for Westerners because there are so many choices to make when filling in your name. Do I write my name in English (romaji), or katakana? If it’s katakana, what do I write in the space that says “furigana?”
These questions are not easily answered if you’re asking a receptionist who has never dealt with a foreign name before. It will likely perplex her even more than you. She will need a “time out” to ask her coworker, who also won’t know the answer. She’ll have to ask her superior who, as soon as he comes out of the toilet, will make this major decision.
After all, these are forms! In Japan forms are highly regarded pieces of paper that will forever live in vaults at the health care office, and will probably survive long after you do but in a damp, dark basement. Or who knows, maybe at your funeral, a health care authority shows up and dumps all your medical records into your casket to take with you. “Wait, don’t close the lid yet! I have the forms!”
Finally, the superior comes out of the toilet and tells me to write my name in katakana, and nothing in the furigana space. I then embark on writing my full name, and I say embark because my full name is as long as the Mississippi River.
It includes my full first name, my grandmother’s mother’s name, my maiden name, my ex-pet rabbit’s name, the names of the first 10 U.S. presidents, and the name of the former president of Venezuela. And I don’t even have a “Christian” name like a lot of foreigners do.
“I’ll write your name for you,” says one of the nurses, trying to be helpful.
“Um, are you sure? It’s a really long name,” I warn her.
“No problem!” she says.
This is what happens when you live on an island where 60 percent of the people are over 60 years old (and most of those are waaaaaaay over 60, more likely in their 80s or 90s). In our little round corner of the octogenarian world, everyone is treated as if they’re 85. It is not uncommon, for example, for the elderly to be unable to comprehend tax forms, census forms or medical forms due to failing eyesight, fading memory of kanji characters and general senility for remembering past events such as whether they took their medicine or not. So the nurses often have to fill out the medical forms for these patients. I say bring it on — treat me like an 85-year-old! It’s probably the closest thing I’ll ever get to a government pension anyway — unlimited compassion.
Besides, this nurse was young and keen — ready to tackle something the length of the Mississippi River. She sharpened her pencil and sat poised and ready. I sensed we were going to need a little more help than a sharpened pencil, so I got out some oars and a rubber raft to make the voyage down the river a little smoother. We would surely encounter some rapids, so I handed her a life jacket too.
“That’s Huckleberry Finn’s cabin,” I pointing out as we boarded our raft in St. Petersburg, Missouri. I steered while she took down dictation of my names. She wrote slowly and succinctly so as not to misspell anything.
It proved to be an unusually calm day on the Mississippi so we were able to get past Jackson Island, my full first name, my grandmother’s mother’s name, and my maiden name before passing our first steamship.
By now, other nurses had gathered to see what was going on and why we were wearing life jackets. I was explaining the meaning behind my ex-pet rabbit’s name, when the nurses suddenly let down their guard and started laughing along. I handed out a few more life jackets and they came onboard.
As we passed St. Louis and drifted down towards Memphis, I gave them some background information on Western names. As the official tour guide now, I hammed it up a bit, “Because Westerners have such long names, we often use nicknames to make it easier. I hardly ever use my full name in the U.S. Full names are for birth, marriage and death certificates only!”
“Ehhhh?” the nurses said in unison while the young, keen one stopped to sharpen her pencil.
“Sometimes, I can’t even do simple procedures at the bank because my foreign registration card insists on having my last name first, starting with Chavez, but my bank accounts have Chavez down last, so the Japanese banks don’t recognize the name as being the same person. It’s a wonder that, if you have to write your name backward on your foreign registration card, you don’t have to sign it backwards too.
“Thankfully, the digital age had pretty much remedied the problem of name order. Nowadays, as long as you sign in to an online account using your password, you can take out as much money as you want, even if you’re a hacker with a completely different name. Hey, be careful of that alligator!” I say as we drift past his gleaming yellow eyes on the surface of the water.
It took the nurse the entire stretch through the state of Arkansas to get down the names of the first 10 U.S. presidents.
Finally, she said “Chyabezu,” confirming my last name. We all clapped and hollered — a job well done! “Do you realize,” I told her, “that at a certain pizza delivery place mistakenly calls me Kyabetsu-san (Mrs. Cabbage)? I always go along with it because I think it’s so funny, but I can imagine pizza shop staff telling their friends, ‘We actually had a customer with the name of Mrs. Cabbage!’ “
When we took our raft out of the river in New Orleans, my entire name written perfectly in katakana on the form. It had never looked so neat and clean.
When I first walked onto that health boat, I was dreading the predictable kerfuffle that would result because of my foreign name. But instead, what we all experienced on the Mississippi River that day was a paradigm shift.
Amy Chavez is author of “Running the Shikoku Pilgrimage: 900 Miles to Enlightenment” (Volcano Press, 2013). She’ll be speaking at 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 20 as part of the BookNotes Series at Good Day Books in Gotanda. Call Good Day Books at 03-6303-9116 to learn whether seats are still available. Or join her the following day for her presentation at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan.