“What’s otoosan’s name?”: Multilingual Couple Talk revisited

Ingrid and I have done sociolinguistic research in a few different contexts, including study abroad, migration and tourism. I also find my own marriage as a fascinating space where I get to experience issues surrounding language and communication on the move on a daily basis. In fact, I wrote a chapter about it in a forthcoming book (March 2010) edited by David Nunan and Julie Choi (pre-print ;-)).

I’m Japanese, but I’ve lived in Australia since 1993, while my husband, Marcin, migrated from Poland to Australia in 2000. Neither of us knew much about each other’s country nor language, before we met at the Three Wise Monkey, aka the cheesiest bar in Sydney, in 2005. After I handed in my PhD thesis in 2006, I dragged Marcin to Japan for a year and a half, where he learned many Japanese words and phrases including “娘さんと結婚させて下さい![Please allow me to marry your daughter!]”

Unfortunately Marcin didn’t get to ask my otoosan (father) that very question – my otoosan passed away three months after we arrived in Japan. Given the fact that Marcin was totally new to the Japanese culture and language, he coped really well, not only in terms of helping us look after my bed-ridden otoosan, who lost his speech four years earlier, but also at his funeral and the rest of our stay in Japan.

Now back in Sydney, we have been married for over a year. “My/Kimie’s otoosan” has become simply “Otoosan”: he is also Marcin’s father now. We talk about otoosan a lot. Marcin had very little time to get to know his Japanese father-in-law, so he still asks many questions about him, which makes me feel warm inside – except the last question he posed during our lunch in a Chinese restaurant the other day:

Marcin: what’s otoosan’s name? (eating Chinese noodle)

Kimie: what? (stop eating the dim sim)

Marcin: what’s otoosan’s name?? (continuing to eat the noodle)

Kimie: ……………….you mean….his name?

Marcin: yes yes, what’s his name? (drinking jasmine tea)

Kimie: ……………….you mean…..you met my father, looked after him in the hospital, saw him pass away there, helped us organise his funeral, married me, all these years, you didn’t know otoosan’s name?

Marcin: nope (still eating the noodle, looking innocent).

According to him, no one told him otoosan’s first name and every one refers to him as otoosan or Takahashi san. In Japan, I suppose, you just don’t call your parents by their first name. Nevertheless I got a little bit upset. I was about to get angry, but then I quickly remembered our marriage ceremony. In front of all our guests (including Ingrid) and the celebrant, I just couldn’t remember Marcin’s middle name while exchanging marriage vows. It still doesn’t look good to see myself on the video asking the celebrant to repeat my husband-to-be’s middle name. To this day, I secretly check the spelling of his middle name by having a sneak peek at his passport when I have to fill out official documents.

Names can be a tricky business for multilingual/multicultural couples and their families! Please share your favorite multilingual and multicultural naming stories 😉

Author Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江

高橋 君江 is Visiting Associate Professor at International Christian University, Tokyo. Before joining ICU in 2014, she was Lecturer at the Graduate School of English at Assumption University of Thailand (2011 – 2014) and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Macquarie University, Australia (2007 and 2011). Kimie is an Honorary Associate in the Department of Linguistics, and continues to co-supervise several PhD students with Ingrid Piller at Macquarie University.

More posts by Kimie Takahashi 高橋君江
  • Hana Chan

    Great story! 🙂

    This is related and might be of interest – the issue of naming your child in a different cultural context, for example there are often strict laws in various European countries for naming your kid:

    also, some parents are really either too creative or completely crazy:

  • I found your blog from twitter and I am glad that I did so!

  • Emi Otsuji

    I enjoyed the piece! It is interesting, I always find it interesting when I see my Dutch friends being called by their small children by their first names and it is true that we never call our parents by their first names in a Japanese context!

    I am currently in Japan on Sabbatical and based in a Japanese university. I have been struggling to find an appropriate way to call American and English professors here. When I started to study in an Australian uni context 15 years ago, I found it difficult to call lecturers/professors by their first names… it took me ages before I felt comfortable calling my supervisor by his first name.. After 15 years, I got used to use first names…and now I feel very uncomfortable calling ‘Professor Smith’ and I do not like being called ‘Dr’ either! I have changed through using different address terms… so is this language on the move? Or emi on the move through language? 🙂

  • Akiko Kato

    I love this story!

    I am teaching in Malaysia, still remember the first suprise when I started teaching.
    I asked my student “what’s your family name?” , they answered ” we do not have family name”. Malaysian Muslim name is basically
    “First name + bin/binti his/her + Father’s first name”.

    I am now helping students to fill up application form to transfer Japanese Universities. Japanese traditional application for foreign students requires “First Middle Famliy ” name…that upsets my students a bit. It seems “International Student” in Japan means still student from English speaking contries….

  • Hana Chan

    Speaking of naming controversies for multicultural couples, there’s this recent news:

    A Saudi woman is seeking a divorce after discovering her husband had nicknamed her ‘Guantanamo’ on his mobile phone.


  • Nice story, I totally relate being myself in a multilingual couple (I am Tunisian and my wife is Taiwanese) – It is now interesting to look at how multilingual couples name their children, seeing that they are the ‘hybrid’ product of an international union. We just a baby boy 4 weeks ago and his name is “Shamseddine” (Transliteration of Arabic), 白韶亭 (Mandarin Chinese) and
    شمس الدين (Arabic) 😉 — This may be an interesting sociolinguistic area to look at in the future… 🙂

  • Ingrid

    ماشاء الله

    It can be quite a challenge! My partner and I were actually glad our child was a girl because we couldn’t think of a boy’s name that met all our linguistic constraints 😉

    She’s called Ava, which works well in English, in German (where it’s the name of the first female poet who wrote in the German vernacular in the Middle Ages) and in Persian (where it means “melody”). As an additional bonus, one of my Chinese students told me “ai wa” means “love child” in Mandarin 🙂

  • Kimie

    “love child” ← Lovely….:-)

    Akiko, that’s a good point. The majority of international students in Japan is from Asia and yet it seems many university officials assume that ‘international’ means being western/English speaking…it’s so 80s…

    Emi, thanks for sharing your struggle;-) I just had a similar experience – An Australian friend of mine who has lived and taught in Japan for many years asked me not to call her her first name + sensei (teacher) (e.g. Jenny Sensei). Probably it’s to do with the general tendency for Japanese students to address a gaijin (foreigner) sensei that way, while they call their Japanese teachers by their family name + sensei (e.g. Takahashi Sensei). So first name+sensei can be an othering practice. It was a good lesson for me.

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  • huamei han

    such a wonderful story Kimie san – I understand how you felt, but think you were being a bit harsh on Marcin for even thinking of getting “a little upset” – but we are humans and you are forgiven, by Marcin for sure 🙂

    I’m using your “Mutilingual Couple Talk” chapter for my course “second language acquisition theory and schooling” to orient them to do sociolinguistic observations in everyday life, and eventually steer them to conduct a small microethnographic research project for this course. I for sure will include this blog and all the responses as part of their reading. Want to know their reactions? Stay tuned – some of them may become regular visitors here!

  • Kimie

    Thank you, Huamei, and good luck with your class! We look forward to visits and comments from your students:-)

  • Jean

    I just tested my husband, who is gaikokujin, if he knows his Korean father-in-law’s name and he passed – lucky for him!