What’s In A Name? Probably More Than We Think

Tonight I saw a film about Minoru Yasui, who sued the US government during World War II for its racist treatment of Japanese Americans, including their incarceration for being Japanese. Families were separated and lost everything — their homes and businesses and farms. Mr. Yasui never gave up, even when he couldn’t get anyone to support him. https://www.minoruyasuifilm.org/film

This is America 1942

Mr. Yasui’s daughter, Holly, made the film. She lives in San Miguel de Allende and, in honor of her father, created Tsuru for Solidarity, which organizes events to oppose the incarceration of another group of innocent people — refugees from Central America. https://tsuruforsolidarity.org/

This is America 2020

In addition to being painful and inspiring, Holly’s film was surprisingly personal, partly because of the time I have recently spent with refugees. But it reminded me of something else. About a year ago, my sister Laura told me why I was named Kim (not Kimberly). I was never able to get my mother to discuss it with me. But Laura told me that when my mother was in high school, her best friend didn’t show up for class one day and never returned. It was 1942 in Portland, Oregon. When Laura told me this, I thought about how my dad used to call me Kimiko. Laura’s story was such a gift. For the first time in my life, my name had meaning and connected me to someone important.

My nephew, Scott, married into a wonderful Japanese family.

Gabe presumably reading the book I wrote about refugees and his refugee Grandfather.

And oh yeah, my last name also makes an important connection. “Malcolm” is Scottish and I am half Scottish. Or at least I thought I was half Scottish until recently, when a DNA test said I was half English and not Scottish at all. And anyway, it’s my mother who (we thought) was Scottish. Malcolm is my dad’s name and he was fully Armenian, er, until the DNA test said he was half Italian! His dad, my grandfather, changed his last name from Najarian to Malcolm after he arrived in the United States in 1914 to escape the Armenian genocide. My grandfather chose “Malcolm” as his last name because it sounded like Melcon, his first name.

About 30 years ago, I looked up “Malcolm” in a large Oxford English Dictionary, which said the name means “black servant of god.” My family is white and we are only servants of god to the extent we are behaving ourselves.

So really nothing about my family’s last name has ever told a straightforward story about what we thought we knew about us.

But then, about 27 years ago, I adopted a baby boy. He is black and his name is Gabriel, like the archangel. I didn’t make the connection at first but now I know my grandfather picked a last name that would connect him to a great-grandson he probably could never have imagined — as if he were making sure the only Malcolm in his family with different genes would know how much he belongs.

At times, it seems there are no accidents in this world. Just little bits of magic waiting to be discovered.



The thing to do, it seems to me, is to prepare yourself so you can be a rainbow in somebody else’s cloud. Somebody who may not look like you. May not call God the same name you call God – if they call God at all. I may not dance your dances or speak your language. But be a blessing to somebody. That’s what I think.
Maya Angelou




  1. Oh My! Kim, this is so moving. Globalization within our own American DNA. And, furthermore, my ideals of America are smashing into the horrible hidden American history of slavery and incarceration, not only of our classic slavery of blacks, since the Jamestown colony made a law that the children of purchased slaves are ALSO slaves, but the slavery of our prisoners, the psychological and physical abuse and torture of immigrants and asylum seekers, the genocide of the Native Americans…the First Peoples as the Canadians call them… Oy. Thank you for continually enlightening us.

  2. I LOVE this one Kim, even more than I usually love your writing, perhaps because I learned some new things about you and your family I didn’t know… or perhaps because of the link to Gabe. In any event, “Well done!”. And more please!

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