Last week, I received a friendly Facebook message from a stranger named Toshiki Nakashige. He, who I learned had attended a school called Yamaguchi University, was thrilled to have met—or the online equivalent of meeting, I’m not sure if there’s a term for that yet—another person with his name. I assumed that he had recently joined the social media platform because, just as I knew where he went for university, I saw that he only had four friends. I know that people who share the same names sometimes create online communities to congregate, and perhaps he was curious to see if he could find someone else in the world with our name, maybe even interested in starting a group of our own. His message read, “I was so happy to find you. Nakashige is an uncommon family name. So I have not met same name even in Japan!” I guess he figured out that I lived in America, and he probably also knew where I went to school.
I responded saying hello and telling him that it was my first time meeting someone with my name, too. Since Japanese names can be represented as kanji or Chinese characters, I wondered whether Japanese people only considered names with the exact same kanji characters technically to be the same, or whether it mattered, that sameness at the phonetic or Romanized level was sufficient. I know that users can set their Facebook names to be written in different languages, but Toshiki Nakashige of Yamaguchi University had his in the Roman alphabet. I then wrote a note to myself in my phone to ask my mom, “Are there ways to write the names Toshiki and Nakashige in other kanji characters?”
Another reason that I had gathered that he was new to Facebook was that it’s probably common for people to search their own name after joining a social networking website. I think I did too, when I enlisted almost ten years ago. I didn’t find anyone with my name.
I think that Toshiki is a relatively uncommon given name in Japan, and it isn’t really a name that’s used or appropriated in other cultures, like Naomi or Ken. For the record, I have met someone with the first name Toshiki in person. He was the Japanese American coworker of one of my friends. Professionally, however, and possibly in his personal life, Toshiki went by his middle name, which was an English one. His business card only bears the first initial “T.” I know this because we exchanged business cards. So, in my mind, it didn’t really count. Based on personal experience, meeting a fellow Nakashige is quite rare as well. In fact, the only people with the name Nakashige I personally know are members of my immediate family.
Then I wondered what Toshiki Nakashige of Yamaguchi University would think if he knew that I had a middle name. In Japan, people generally don’t give their children middle names, and I assume he doesn’t have one. As someone who was born in the United States, I do, and this might mean that he and I technically don’t share the same name.
My name is Toshiki George Nakashige.
My parents named me after the Prime Minister of Japan and the President of the United States who were in office in 1990. My Facebook profile doesn’t include the middle name, or even the initial, so to Toshiki Nakashige of Yamaguchi University, I am just Toshiki Nakashige of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
My business card, the one that I exchanged with first initial "T." Toshiki, reads “Toshiki G. Nakashige”. I remember hearing that some social science experiment showed that people who included their middle initials on professional documents, and more generally those who had more names, were perceived to be more competent and intelligent. I also read about another study that showed that American employers were less likely to hire a job applicant whose resume indicated an ethnic name as opposed to an English or Western one, despite having equally competitive qualifications and experience. Although I’m not sure whether Asian or Asian American names were considered in the study, perhaps my friend’s coworker decided to go by his middle name for these reasons.
Nevertheless, my middle name usually doesn’t come up in casual conversation. Even though I often have to repeat my name during social introductions and have to spell it out for reservations and take-out orders, I’ve never gone by George. Nor did I ever really want to. I remember my parents telling me that they gave me an English middle name so that I could go by it if I wanted to, and despite their echoes in situations where I feel like I’m being misunderstood or outright discriminated because I have a Japanese name, which I admit doesn’t happen frequently but unfortunately still does happen, I value the name Toshiki. It’s unique and tells something about my heritage.
Throughout grade school and college, I only revealed George when I had to share a personal ice-breaking fact for the first day of classes or extracurricular activities, or maybe when I needed conversation fuel during a first date. No one really found out my middle name unless I explicitly shared it.
A new chapter of my Asian American self-identity began when I enrolled in graduate school at MIT. The school directory system lists the full names of students, and emails that I send to other MIT community members using my school email address are from Toshiki George Nakashige. There was something that felt disarming about being forced to disclose my middle name, especially because of the cultural assumptions surrounding my having both Japanese and English names. I was a teaching assistant for two courses during my first year at MIT, and for whatever reasons, the instructors for the courses who only knew me based on what was listed in the school directory—and who, I note for the purpose of this argument, were American and white—assumed that the name I preferred to go by, my nickname, was George.
The first email addressed to me by my fall semester instructor, which was before we had formally met, opened with the salutation “Dear George”. Without explicitly acknowledging this mistake, I respectfully signed my reply message “Sincerely, Toshiki”. That was the only time she called me George, and even though I ended up having a friendly and productive relationship with her for the rest of the semester, I’m still not sure if she actually recognized that I had felt awkward about her assumption.
What happened during the spring semester was a little more severe. I taught a laboratory course, and due to the course structure, it involved a rotating schedule of experiments. To organize which TA was in charge of which group for a given two-week experiment, the instructor tabulated the names of the TAs in the class instruction manual and on a bulletin board along with enlarged versions of our school ID photos. We met with the instructor on the first day of TA training, and to my surprise, “George” was written everywhere. When I asked him to change my name to the correct one, he said that he thought I had told him I preferred to go by George, which wasn’t true. Even though he eventually apologized and revised the materials before the semester began, telling an established MIT instructor, and my employer essentially, that he made a mistake within hours of meeting him was incredibly uncomfortable.
I want to give my instructors the benefit of the doubt. It was an honest mistake, that they misread George to be my first name on the roster. But my mind wanders. In such a multicultural environment as this academic institution, I understand that there are international students, including Asian students, who choose to go by “American” names. Their given names may be difficult to spell or pronounce, or perhaps they just like the sound of an English name and, given the option, happily adopted one. Whatever the reason, I respect that choice, but that’s not the case for me.
George is not my American name. It’s my middle name. Toshiki is my American name.
I think my problem, or issue, about this—and I sincerely don’t mean to sound angry—is that my Kerberos ID is toshiki. Now, a Kerberos ID is the handle, alias, or name that a person at MIT goes by digitally. We use this username for security authentication to log onto the school network and to sign up for safety trainings, for example. It’s also our school email address. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and my instructors called me “George”.
If I weren’t thinking about my Asian American identity enough already, I questioned my computer-based identity when I had to sign up for a Kerberos ID four years ago. For personal usernames, I have typically used some iteration of my real name. My previous school email account included both my first and last names, and for continuity, I wanted to register a similar username at MIT. However, the Kerberos ID is limited to eight characters, and I remember spending an hour or so deciding on what to do because my last name contains nine letters. There was nakashig, but saying it out loud sounded silly. So did tnakashi and toshikin. I didn’t consider including numbers, and they recommended using your initials. I thought about tgn, but it was too reminiscent of my middle school AOL Instant Messaging username for me to take it seriously. Maybe toshnaka.
I begrudgingly settled on toshiki. Friends have commented that I have a cool email address, and in a way, I’m lucky to have a unique first name. It’s like Adele. Still, I wish there wasn’t an eight-character limit so that I could have my full last name there, at least.
I wondered why there was a maximum character limit in the first place. It must have something to do with how the programming system operated and that having more characters in a username was technologically inefficient in some way that I didn’t appreciate. I’m not insinuating that having this limit is racially or culturally discriminating because I acknowledge that there are common last names in America that are longer than eight letters, too. Obviously, I’ve thought about it too much and, out of curiosity, recently sent a message to the email address that handles questions regarding the Kerberos ID. I first received an automatic response confirming that my message was received, and the next day, Michael of the accounts account responded that the Kerberos ID system has a limit of eight characters because, at the time the system was created, that was the common username length on Unix computers. He said that there was no plan for this limit to change and that he apologized for the inconvenience.
My name is a product of my Japanese American heritage. I write my first name using seven Roman letters, but it can also be represented in three syllables written in Japanese hiragana or two kanji characters that mean “handsome tree”. My last name, which can mean "inside heavy", connects me to my family and also to strangers in a foreign country or over the Internet. And my middle name is just that, a middle name. It's sometimes a "G." and most of the time nothing at all.