Over a cuppa at Mek Mek Café

I PASS by Mek Mek Café every day. It is located just at the entrance of the road that leads to my office.

Mek Mek, as we all know, is generally accepted as the sound made by goats. Apparently, the surname of the coffee shop owner is Yang (same pronunciation as goat in Mandarin). The Chinese name of the coffee shop is Lao Yang Coffee Shop.

It takes a great sense of humour on the part of a person surnamed Yang to make use of Mek Mek as the English name for his shop. After all, who doesn’t know that’s how a goat bleats? The nursery rhyme – Baa baa black sheep, have you any wool – filled our childhood days and then into motherhood when we read it to our children. Even in Chinese, there is xiao yang mie mie jiao ma ma.

It is common for the Chinese to affectionately call male friends Lao followed by their surnames. Whether Lao Yang or Lao Ma (horse – a common Chinese family name too), most of us know from experience that having a sense of humour about things and the ability to laugh at ourselves can make life a little easier and happier.

However, humour loses its good clean fun image when it is used to ridicule or mock.

As Henry David Thoreau says, “A name pronounced is the recognition of the individual to whom it belongs. He who can pronounce my name all right, he can call me, and is entitled to my love and service.”

All sympathies are, therefore, with former national sprinter, Watson Nyambek, for slamming the coarseness of a TV3 comedy show titled Sukan Tak Sentral. The male host Azizul Ammar Abu Hassan imitated – and quite stupidly so – the bleating of a goat when pronouncing the last syllable of the name of Watson’s late father – Nyambek.

In response, Watson reportedly said, “The way they mentioned the name was as if they were comparing my late father to an animal and it really brought shame to our family and I got mad, especially when the producer did not get any approval from me to air the programme. I am requesting the police to investigate this case as I want to know the motive behind the presenter’s insensitive action and take action against him.”

Watson was accompanied by some 40 people from nine NGOs and political bodies when he arrived at Miri police station to lodge a report. The NGOs included the Sarawak Dayak Association, Gagasan Anak Dayak Sarawak, Terabai Menua, Borneo Tail Club Miri, Dayak Bikers, Miri Kuntao Association and Lambir branch Parti Pesaka Bumiputera Bersatu.

Watson is also mulling legal action against TV3 and the programme producer – Primeworks Studios Sdn Bhd – with the justification that the mocking of his late father’s name not only belittled him and his family but also the people of Sarawak.

Who can blame him? As Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says, “Once you label me, you negate me.”

Controversy surrounding names in TV shows, awards ceremonies or the workplace or classrooms is quite common. When I was teaching in Girls’ Brigade more than a decade ago, pronouncing the names of the girls in class correctly was one of the challenging tasks. Yes, it was.

A person’s name is a very sacred form of identity and to get it pronounced (or spelt) wrong is usually regarded as offensive. To address someone with a difficult-to-pronounce name, there are appropriate and gracious ways to conduct ourselves while going about it.

For me, in a classroom setting, I deliberately left the name out in the roll call. After that, I would ask, “Have I missed out anyone?” Then, magically, a little hand would be raised, “Madam, you have not called me.”

Then, you could get the correct pronunciation from the child herself and actually ask her to repeat her name if you did not get it the first time.

It’s rude to make people’s names into a joke. True, an accidental mispronunciation is an innocent mistake but if we do not take the time to learn the proper pronunciation after being corrected, our persistent nonchalance could adversely affect the other person’s self-esteem and make him or her feel worthless.

However, in reality, the opposite can be equally true as I believe that mocking other people’s names says more about our own personality than that of the people whose names we are mocking.

At the 2017 Oscars in February, late-night talk show host Jimmy Kimmel who emceed the glittering event, poked fun at the names of two non-whites, including one of the winners, and stirred up a storm on social media.

He joked about the name of Mahershala Ali, the best supporting actor in the best picture-winning film Moonlight twice in a manner that some considered racist.

Ali, in his acceptance speech, thanked his wife Amatus Sami-Karim who gave birth to their first child four days ago. After he left the stage, Kimmel cracked what has been called a “tasteless” joke about Ali’s surname, suggesting it must have made it difficult to choose a pet name for his daughter.

“You can’t name her Amy,” he said.

The joke was widely condemned by netizens.

Ali was actually hosted earlier in the show ‘Jimmy Kimmel Live’ where Kimmel was discussing what Ali would name his child due to born around the Oscars ceremony and Kimmel cheekily said he intended to name his next child Pineapple while Ali was magnanimous to say he would be giving a name a little bit simpler for his child.

For the record, Ali’s daughter was born on Feb 22 (four days before Oscars) and he named her Bari Najma Ali.

In a second mockery at the Oscars, Kimmel asked the audience to shout Mahershala in unison when a group of tourists entered – as part of a prank. As if this was not enough, Kimmel also made fun of the name of a woman in tour group he brought to the ceremony as part of an extended gag.

He asked the woman for her name to which she replied Yulerie. Her husband then said his name was Patrick. The media reported Kimmel as saying, “Now that’s a name.”

Dr James Spiegel, in an article titled ‘Mock Humor in Christianity Today’ gave this evaluation of mocking humour, “Avoid mocking persons because to mock a fellow human being indirectly insults God, since we all bear God’s image. Moreover, mockery is painful to the person mocked. It’s a form of contempt and is wrong, no matter how many laughs one might elicit.”

However, in these gloomy, uncertain times, the ability to have a good laugh over the mockeries directed especially at us is good for a happier life and also a peaceful society.

Susan Sparks, author of ‘Laugh your way to grace,’ writes, “If you can laugh at yourself, you can forgive yourself. And if you can forgive yourself, you can forgive others.”

Sometimes, we just need a reminder to take everything, including ourselves, less seriously.

It is heartening to note what Watson in his meeting with TV3 representatives had said, “Today I do not accept this apology and may be some day if I am more at peace (with it), then I will accept it.”

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