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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2000

My surname, my friend, is blowing in the wind

My Japanese wife was born blessed -- or cursed -- with the kind of meat-and-potatoes name one usually assumes is an alias. In English a comparable moniker might be "Mary Brown" or "Susan Smith."

This soapsuds name did not trouble her until one day she was pulled in by detectives convinced that she was the same "Mary Brown" who had vanished with a lot of someone else's money. Same age, same height and same name -- but still the wrong girl.

She slipped that noose easily enough, but began to look forward to the day when wedlock would sprinkle her name with some much needed spice -- never dreaming she was soon to meet and marry me. Looking for simple seasoning, she instead ended up with a sweet-and-sour zinger, a mixed name that was doomed to roll off the tongue funny no matter where she was.

Her first name is innocent enough: three harmless little syllables, which Americans pronounce in about 800 ways, none of them correct. Even my own mother struggled for years. Giggling and crossing her eyes in hopeless frustration, like she was trying to pluck up Jello with chopsticks. In America that's just what my wife's name has become: a sort of merry party trick.

Meanwhile, in Japan, the name Dillon has trekked to the other end of the spectrum -- torture. People get pained looks in their eyes as they wrench up their lips and spew out a howl like Godzilla with a thorn through his paw.

The culprit for these anguished roars is the "Di" followed by "L," a sound combo not native to this land. People will also twist the last vowel in "Dillon" to a long "O," producing a sound my name does not include. So sometimes we become "Dayrown," and sometimes "Jeerown" and sometimes just a hair-tingling screech.

Taking pity on these wounded efforts, I always urge Japanese to instead pronounce my name a la Bob Dylan, the singer, hoping his renown will help make articulation easier. After all, outside of spelling, "Dillon" and "Dylan" are the same.

The first such effort never fails to produce a raspy groan. "No, no!" I instruct. "I meant to say it like 'Dylan!' Not sing it like him!"

Rarely does the pronunciation improve. The success rate is so hit and miss that I wonder if when Bob Dylan visits Japan he tries to correct his name by bending in the opposite direction -- by getting people to say it a la Tom Dillon, the blockhead.

If so, I can pretty well predict his results. Maybe we should both give up and just ask people to pronounce our names like Mariah Carey. What we would lose in accuracy, we would at least gain back in melody.

The person who probably struggles with my last name the most is my mother-in-law. In trying to reproduce the sound faithfully, she compromises halfway between katakana and English, resulting with a strained whoop that comes out part beast and part yodel. Whenever Grandma answers our phone, most callers hang up at once, convinced they have reached some Alpine zoo.

Another place where the name "Dillon" creates problems is in a waiting room, be it at the city office, a health clinic or anywhere, for we are never quite sure when our name has been called.

"Did the clerk just ask for us?" we question. Or did she simply belch? When the clerk finally does bark some katakana, it is not unusual to see every foreigner in the room leap at once. Fudged pronunciation added to fuzzy hearing skills make many gaijin answer to anything. Once another foreigner came close to paying my doctor bill. I would have stopped him sooner, but I was hoping he was just being generous.

Our last name has often misled people into thinking my wife is a foreigner too. That she looks thoroughly Japanese makes no difference. Upon hearing the name "Dillon," people begin addressing her in slow motion, pausing long between syllables and then gesturing wildly like street mimes. While she appreciates this communicative kindness, what galls her is the follow-up comment that meets her first Japanese response.

"Wow!" the person will say. "Your Japanese is good! Almost like a native!"

Almost indeed. When I speak, I usually receive a similar, yet decidedly different reaction: "Wow! Your Japanese is . . . not bad. Almost like our dog's." And -- just like a dog -- sooner or later I end up with a one-word name. Many people, including some whom I hardly know, just call me "Tom." I answer to this, of course. I also sit and shake hands on command. In fact, considering the price of meat, I might even roll over for the right cut of beef.

More than a few Japanese thus end up thinking "Tom" is my last name. Or maybe they just wish it was. Whatever, either out of convenience or cordiality, I am frequently known as Mr. Tom. And my wife as Mrs. Tom.

Consequently, her plight has gotten no better. Now she owns a pair of fence-post plain first names, one Japanese and one Western.

A rose is still a rose, right? Names only count for so much. We are what we are, regardless. A fact not so encouraging to blockheads.

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