Thursday, September 12, 2013

Naming Darwin

"'What's your name,' Coraline asked the cat. 'Look, I'm Coraline. Okay?'
'Cats don't have names,' it said.
'No?' said Coraline.
'No,' said the cat. 'Now you people have names. That's because you don't know who you are. We know who we are, so we don't need names.'"

Coraline (2012) by Neil Gaiman

Darwin Thinking
I always pegged him as a thinking man.

Yesterday, I went to officially put our newborn baby son on the record. There is a solitary office on the 3rd floor of the hospital I work in, the same place where Darwin (my son, not the biologist) was born, that serves as an outpost for the National Registration Department of Malaysia, and people go to it to both register births and deaths. As with most services these days, you take a number, you sit down and you wait till your number's up. Mine was 0008, a number that the Chinese think is auspicious because it sounds like the Chinese word for "prosper" or "prosperity". They like it as much as they abhor the number 4, which is almost homonymous with "death" or "dying". Even as a little kid, I always found it amusing that mathematically, to die twice is to prosper. It is as amusing as I found death and birth being registered at the same place to be.

I looked around me and noticed the dichotomy of waiting applicants - people who just had one of the best and happiest days of their lives sitting right beside those who just had one of the saddest and worst. One could tell at a glance which was which. I wondered if it was by design; to sober up the former and to mock the latter.

I then let my gaze settle on the name I wrote in block letters in my registration form and felt a pang of anxiety. What if they don't allow it? Several months ago, I called the Registrar of Births and Deaths' office to find out if it was possible for my child to take his mother's surname and the answer I got was no. There's actually a rule on the book about it in Act 299:

"The surname, if any, to be entered in respect of a legitimate child shall ordinarily be the surname, if any, of the father."

I also heard a lot of accounts of people who wanted to change their registered religion to "tiada" or "none" and was turned away by National Registration clerks who told them that that was not possible, even when they weren't Muslims. However, my wife and I changed our religion designation to "tiada" as painlessly as we changed our address, no questions asked, so I guess one just has to take everything any drone in the bureaucracy tells you with a pinch of sceptical seasoning.

I chose the name Darwin soon after I learned that he was going to be a boy. It was one of the first names I considered and even after looking at hundreds of other potentials, I kept returning to it again and again. The only two other names that I really considered were Theodore and Jasper. I liked the diminutive of Theodore, which is Teddy but its root Greek meaning is "God's gift", which would seem like a really odd name to give a child of two atheists to say the least. Jasper is a name with Persian origins that meant "treasurer" and I always thought jaspers looked really pretty, but it was apparently used as a slang word for "a rustic simpleton".

Darwin, according to A Handy Poetical Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, was derived from Old English deorwine which was made up of the elements dêore which means "dear, beloved, cherished" and wine which means "friend". It literally means "dear friend" and I felt that that was a really beautiful and intimate name to call our little stranger. It really stood out to me from all the other names that are either positive traits people want their offspring to have, or pretensions to royalty or divinity. Also, it only has two syllables, is easy to say and sounds like "darling", which shares a similar root in Old English.

One cannot talk about the name Darwin without invoking its most famous bearer, the British naturalist Charles Darwin, who revolutionised the field of life sciences with his grand unifying theory of evolution, and to quote Dobzhansky, a Russian Orthodox Christian evolutionary biologist, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution." Charles Darwin was also a loving husband and devoted father - a side of him that is much less frequently discussed, but no less important, than his momentous contributions to our understanding of life. My Darwin can do much worse than share his name with so revered and venerable a figure.

Darwin and I, 1st Portrait Together
My first ever picture with Darwin.

As for his surname, we had toyed with the idea of him having a joint one but "Kok" and "Cheah" just don't assimilate well. Very early on, I decided that Darwin should bear his mother's name, because no matter how I look at it, it doesn't make sense (or seem remotely fair) for him to bear mine since Cheryl was the one who put her body through the risks, hardships and dangers of pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, I would feel as if I am assuming undue credit even if we went with a joint surname. Even biologically speaking, the creation of new life is not a 50-50 venture - it's more like I came up with half an idea and my wife then proceeded to build a human being out of it. Aside from sexist Chinese traditions that depreciate women, is there any good reason at all for my son to inherit my name?

My decision is not without precedents, of course. There were archaeological evidence to suggest that the ancient Chinese derived their surnames matrilineally before the patriarchy took over. In fact, the Chinese character for "surname" is 姓 and it consists of the radicals 女 (woman) and 生 (born), which is thought to be an etymological remnant of that practice. So in a way, it is possible that I am actually far more observant of Chinese traditions than most modern Chinese people alive.

Above it all, I did what I think any righteous man who abhors injustice and any husband who truly appreciates his partner's sacrifice would do. I named Darwin after her so that he will grow up with a constant reminder of the pains and perils his mother went through to bring him into this world. Don't you think that that is much more meaningful than adhering to a practice started by men in their sad, selfish, egoistic attempt to pass their own names down because they did absolutely nothing notable enough for them to be remembered otherwise?

Darwin Motherhood
5-day-old mother with her 5-day-old baby boy.

When 0008 was called, I submitted my son's birth registration form to the lady at the counter who looked through it for errors. I just sat there, wondering if she would raise the issue of Darwin's surname. Without saying a word, she started typing into her computer while referring intermittently to my form. After about a minute, the click-clacking on her keyboard stopped abruptly and her eyes met mine. I braced myself for the inevitable.

"I'm going to translate Green Road to Jalan Green, alright?" she told me.

"Huh? Okay," I said.

When she was done, she printed a black-and-white draft of Darwin's birth certificate for me to check. I passed it back to here after a moment with a nod and a smile. She then walked into the office and returned shortly with sheet of official-looking green paper. Printed on it was our newborn son's name in all capital letters.


Born 4:23 PM on September 6, 2013. Boy. Ethnically Chinese. Citizen of Malaysia. No religion, but isn't that true of all babies? 

RELATED POST: What's in a Name, a short piece detailing my process in choosing his name. As you can see, I really gave it A LOT of thought.

P.S. Yes, he has a Chinese given name but we are only using that among family members.

k0k s3n w4i


Anonymous said...

Could one of the reason you chose your son to inherit the mothers name is to avoid all the playground teasing and abuse from his peers for what your surname sounds like? :D

Not that it matters, i think you will make a good parent.
So congrats!

nicoletta said...

Oh, you got what you wanted after all! Turns out it wasn't that hard. I'm so pleased. It really is a gorgeous name and it's so lovely to read about how much thought and care you put into naming Darwin.

As far as I know, "Julian" has no profound meaning, and I did have a lot of trouble coming to an agreement with naming him. There's not much of a story there, I'm afraid. :P

Congrats once again, and definitely looking forward to reading more about little Darwin!

PS: Darwin's birthday is the day after mine...September is a great month. :P

Suit Lin said...

I nearly cheered out loud when you managed to get your son's surname the way you and Cheryl wanted it, thank you for sharing these awesome moments with us! :) and congratulations!

Darshan said...

Holy Moses! Seeing the foto of you and Darwin, at a quick glance, without recognising you from your blog foto, I would have thought it was a boy of 10-12 years beaming at his baby brother! How do you manage to look so baby-faced for a chap in mid-20s? Or was it due to the angle of the foto taken?

cheryl said...

Credit goes to The Wife in pain, Darshan.

shanaz@RS said...

What a lovely name for a cute baby! I'm kind of envious that you got to do it your way! Darwin's making my heart melt. Thanks for sharing such a special and intimate moment with your adoring fans! Take care :)

Anonymous said...

You did good. Congrats to both of you and hi to our dear friend.

synical said...

Aww.... Congrats on the newborn and the name :)

k0k s3n w4i said...

Anonymous: As someone who named his blog after his surname, do I come across as someone who is ashamed of my own surname enough to want to protect my son from it? Why is there a need to imply a reason beyond the one I had already explained in my post?

nicoletta: Thanks. I think most parents put as much, if not more, thoughts into naming their children. Julian was not a name you chose?

Suit Lin: Thank you. It would be a very strange and perverted world if a child's parents cannot even expect to name their own kids the way they want to.

Darshan: The angle definitely helped :/

cheryl: You were in bed. It was my posing.

Anonymous and synical: Thanks! :)

Anonymous said...

Baby pictures please!