Having an African last name that doesn’t “sound African” to the American ear usually brings questions and has brought some interesting exchanges my way. Many think it’s Chinese in origin and, possessing a distinctly un-Chinese appearance, I’ve giggled at some puzzled expressions directed at me when I say the name. I used to get annoyed when some would think it was Chinese until a Chinese guy asked if it was.
Most people are polite and ask the origin straight out. Then, there are some that are just plain rude. Here’s an example of the latter that occurred when I worked for United Airlines. A co-worker had seen me before and asked me what my name was:
Man: What’s your last name?
Man: (pauses) Are you married?
Man: Did you used to be married?
Me: (thinking 'boy, is he nosy,' but having a sense of where the conversation is leading) Yes.
Man: What is your maiden name?
Me: Ochieng. I went back to my maiden name when I got divorced.
Man: What was your name before?
Me: (here it is, I thought; I smiled sweetly) Before what?
Man: Before you changed it.
Me: I was born with this name. It’s my father’s last name.
Man: (really puzzled now) How did he get that last name?
Me: (yanking his chain, knowing what he really wanted to know, but ticked off at how he went about getting the information) It was his father’s name and his father before him. (Not really. I’ll explain below.)
The man is totally perplexed now. Finally I tire of his crap.
Me: Why don’t you ask the question that you really want to ask?
Man: What kind of name is that?
Me: Kenyan. My father is from Kenya.
Man: (ticked off, to my delight) Well why didn’t you say so in the first place?
Me: (shrugs) You didn’t ask. You made all kinds of assump….
He stomped off in a huff.
In my father’s tribe, it’s not customary to take the last name of one’s father. Each kid gets his/her own last name. The name is determined by the conditions under which the child is born, i.e. morning, noon, night, raining, etc. The last name also varies in the spelling with regard to gender: girls’ last names begin with A, boys’ with O. With Kenya having been a British colony, some Kenyans use their fathers’ last names in keeping with the European tradition. Some don’t. However, even those who use the European system of naming still have a “middle” name; more accurately, two last names.
Since I was born in the US, I was given my father’s last name, but I have my own last name which begins with A. As with the Russian patronymic concept, it’s permissible to call me by this name alone, but in my family, it can get confusing. One of my sisters has the identical “middle” name. When she lived in the DC area, I went to visit her and she took me to a Kenyan gathering. Someone called out our name: “Hey, A….!” We both said, “hey, what,” looked at each other and giggled.
Just a little narcissistic FYI.