On My Name

Dad with little Sandor

Dad with little Sándor

My parents had the remarkable foresight to give me a highly Googleable name in 1975. Search for Sándor Lau if you don’t believe me. If nefarious electoral operatives attempt to remove me from the voting rolls, they will not be able to claim they mistook me for the other Sándor Lau. This name was not always fun. I estimate that I have spent 1.6% of my life explaining it to people or correcting people when they put it through the linguistic equivalent of waterboarding.There is a tiny glimmer of hope in my heart that writing this now will reduce that percentage overall in the future.

My full handle is Sándor William Mun Sung Lau. It looks like five but is in fact four names. Sándor comes from my Hungarian grandfather who was named Sándor at birth in the old country in 1913. His parents had migrated to the US  a few years earlier and his mother returned to Hungary to visit relatives, not knowing on her departure that she was pregnant. Foresight runs in the family and she had the vision to see that 1913 was an extraordinarily clever time to depart Eastern Europe.

With my grandfather Alex (Sandor) Breza, 2006

With my grandfather Alex (Sándor ) Breza, 2006

On arriving at Ellis Island, the conversation went something like this:

“Sán-what? This boy is called Alex from now on,” which in fact he was called for his entire speaking life. Sándor is the Hungarian equivalent of Alexander. At that time it was even less fashionable to be foreign in the US than it is now. Despite growing up speaking Hungarian as his native language, he willfully forgot it. In his last days, even he began to waterboard my name.

For the record, it is pronounced SHAWN-door. Imagine Sean Connery walking in the door if you want an easy mnemonic.

In the movie business, people talk quickly and listen rarely. I did a brief stint as an extra on the The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When I filled out the paperwork and introduced myself, the casting director informed me that I had spelled my name wrong. Many other Sándors in the anglophone world have become tired enough of being told they are spelling their own names wrong, they give in and do spell their names wrong. It’s popular enough that Shandor.com is already taken and Shandor.net will cost you $1,288 today, just to acquire the domain.

Another issue people have perpetual trouble with is the intonation. I worked with a colleague over a year who would say my name sán-DOR and claim he was saying it exactly as I had taught him. I only had to call him rob-ERT once and he understood.

My English middle name William is my Chinese (born in Hawaii) grandfather’s English name. It is  standard practice for many people of Asia to take stock standard common Western names as this Onion graphic so succinctly describes: http://www.theonion.com/articles/most-popular-us-baby-names,7296/

Mun Sung 文生 is my Chinese given or personal name.  Most Chinese given names are compound, so these two characters together make one name. Because of dialectical differences, the same written characters may be pronounced quite differently.  Mun Sung is the Cantonese pronunciation of my name, as my family came from Guangdong Province (though we are ethnically Hakka, but we’ll save that for another time). The Mandarin pronunciation is Wen Sheng. Mun/Wen/文 is language, writing or literature. Sung/Sheng/生 is life. It turns out that my Chinese side also has a certain gift of foresight. I began writing professionally at the age of 16.

While my name in its entirety is unique, our family name Lau 劉  is common. The Mandarin pronunciation is Liu, so I have the same last name as American  actress Lucy Liu as well as Hong Kong actor Andy Lau. According to Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_common_Chinese_surnames, Lau/Liu/劉  is the fifth most common  Chinese family name.  While the name denotes Han Dynasty royalty, we are not of the Han ethnicity and last time I checked family history, we had left China in the the late 1800s, as many peasants did, because of a shortage of what is commonly known as food.

When I was growing up in a small town in eastern Colorado, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten became a popular book and some teachers chose a poster with its sayings to decorate classroom walls.

Its pearls of wisdom include:

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.

Wash your hands before you eat.

Flush.

Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.

Unfortunately, the experience of kindergarten teachers and a classroom poster was not enough to get the other children to live by these maxims. While I have fond memories of our family life on the prairie, my main social takeaway from school in a small town was: different=bad. I found this lesson from kindergarten to be applicable to most aspects of life in other social institutions beyond school.

It has only recently occurred to me that people change their names all the time. In Native American cultures of the Great Plains, it was very common for someone to have their childhood name they were given around birth, their adult name that reflected their deeds or personality and another name taken later in life indicating the person they had become. It is becoming increasingly common for men to change their name at marriage, as women have done for some time. But in spite of the linguistic waterboarding inflicted on me and my name, the thought of changing it or even adopting a nickname has never crossed my mind.

In Japan they say the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. In New Zealand (and other countries), this is known as the tall poppy syndrome, as in the tall poppy gets its head cut off. But it was in fact when I moved to New Zealand that I discovered that being different was my secret weapon. In many ways I became who I am now in my time in NZ. I made my films Sándor’s New Zealand Trail (originally released as Behaviours of the Backpacker) and Squeegee Bandit there. I wrote my first published works of fiction and poetry there and became a New Zealand citizen. I’m still probably better known in New Zealand than anywhere else.

There are a number of Sándors who for the time being are better known than I.

I believe the most notable Sándor in recent popular culture is Sandor Clegane from Game of Thrones.

I believe he enjoys killing people. I would rather be known for inspiring people so it is fortunate that he is better known by his nickname, the Hound, and I think there is little worry of people confusing the two of us.

Sándor Ferenczi was a Hungarian psychoanalyst. He was born to Polish Jews and his family name at birth was Fränkel which he later magyarized to Ferenczi. I am not going to lose much sleep over being confused with him either.

Ivo Shandor is mentioned but never seen in the movie Ghostbusters in which he is cited as the architect of 55 Central Park West, spook central. Ray Stantz (Dan Ackroyd) claims of Ivo Shandor, “the architect was either a certified genius or an authentic wacko.” Between the 1980s pop cultural phenomena of All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten and Ghostbusters, my vote for work that contains more valuable pearls of wisdom goes to Ghostbusters.

After Stantz bumbles a confrontation with the god Gozer atop 55 Central Park West, his fellow ghostbuster Winston Zeddemore advises him, “If someone asks you if you are a god, you say, ‘Yes!’” I believe that is more practical advice than “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.”

ghostbusters are you a god

Ghostbusters

Every parent believes their child is unique and special…just like everybody else. I believe I do have some cause to believe they are right though. I tell most people I meet I am the only Chinese-Hungarian-American-New Zealander. I’ve never heard of another, though if you know someone, please do share with me.

It is an active process for people to change their names and generally a passive one for people to keep the ones they’ve been given. But after spending 1.6% of my life explaining my name to people, I have actively decided to keep it. Not because my grandfather carried it all the way across the Atlantic or my great grandparents brought it from China but because for better or for worse it’s a shorthand way of letting people know I have my very own ethnicity. This name is mine now and don’t even think of fighting me for it because you’ll be the one the one headed for waterboarding if you do.

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