Editor's Page: All in a Name
The truth behind my one-initial shoutout.
This month's feature, “Who Is Robert Lee?” is one of my favorites. Senior writer Mike Keany found the most common name in the phone book, Robert Lee, then called them all to learn about their lives. What a fascinating collection of people, no two alike. I was intrigued to read about the problems they’ve encountered. One Robert Lee was mistaken for a deadbeat by the same name, another avoided joining a social club because it already had one Robert Lee. Some part of the “Robert Lee” experience seems to be explaining which Robert Lee you are!
This intrigued me because I’ve had the opposite problem, a name that needs constant explaining, as no one has ever heard of it. The Napier part is a short story—it is Scottish, not French, despite the Frenchified “ier” ending. No, I’m not related to the ranching Napiers of the Big Island (who are famous!) or Honolulu realtor James Napier (also famous!), which people have been asking me the entire 15 years I’ve had a byline in the magazine. I’m not even related to the Napiers who live at the opposite end of the street where I grew up—what are the odds that, out of six or seven Napier families in the Oahu phonebook, two of them would be on the same street? We all got each other’s mail a lot.
Then there’s Kam. Three little letters, and a lifetime of trouble. Here’s a common exchange, especially as service has become more personalized at, say, Starbucks or Jamba Juice. I place my order and then:
Can I have your name?
Kam. Like Sam, but with a K.
Kam is short for Kamuela. I was named after my dad’s stepdad, Samuel, a Philadelphia firefighter. But, since I was born here, my parents gave me the Hawaiian equivalent. Shortening that to Kam was fine, too, in 1968. Remember when everything named after Kamehameha was shortened to “Kam?” Kam Schools, Kam Drive-In, Kam Shopping Center. Then, by the 1990s, even Kam Schools grads had stopped using Kam. Around that time, a Hawaiian guy in one of my classes at UH told me my name was wrong. “Hawaiian syllables don’t end on consonants,” he explained. “You’d have to shorten it to Kamu.”
He’s right. But I can’t. I’d been answering to Kam for 20-plus years by then and another 20 to this day. Kamu? No, it’s culturally insensitive Kam. Insensitive, or at least ambiguous—people never seem to know what “kind” of name it is. Things people have actually said upon meeting me:
“I was expecting a Korean.”
“You’re not Chinese!”
“I always thought you were a woman.”
The expression “first-name basis” means some degree of social intimacy between you and another person. The opposite is true for me. Kam is my middle name, and I use an initial for my first. My family never used my first name either, to avoid confusion, I guess, since it was also my dad’s first name and maybe because it’s also a bit old fashioned.
People often ask What does the A. stand for? “I never tell,” I’ve always said, as a way of cultivating an entirely bogus air of mystery.
But that’s not true. I’ll tell my first name to any bureacracy that demands a “first name, middle initial, last name” on its forms. I have an official secret identity known only to the DMV, doctors, lawyers and banks, which I like. It keeps these folks at a decent, professional distance from the “real” me.
In fact, I started using the “A.” when I started writing—in part to signal to officialdom that Kam Napier was indeed the same person as “A_____ K. Napier,” especially if there were checks to be cashed. I thought it looked authorial, too.
Still curious? Really?
Albert. The “A.” stands for Albert, which, as I mentioned, was my dad’s name. But come to think of it, he never really went by Albert, either. To his friends, he was always “Smokey,” a nickname he got after after joining a volunteer fire effort. Otherwise, he went by Al.
Al is not a bad name. Technically, I could use it too. But Betty, when you call me, you can call me Kam.
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