Sunday 9 November 2008

Who needs vowels when you're related to Obama?

With Barack Hussein Obama winning the US presidential election, this is the closest I’ve come to having a relative in the (now ironically named) White House.

How is Obama related to me?

His half-sister is married to someone with the surname Ng. My surname is Ong. Take away one letter from my surname and the president-elect and I are practically kin!

Hey, if some little Japanese town can claim a connection to the guy just because the place is coincidentally called Obama, why can’t I do the same just because my surname somewhat resembles his half brother-in-law’s?

I’m so jealous of those of you whose surname is actually Ng, even though it doesn’t have any vowels. Did you ever imagine that your vowel-less surname would be so closely associated to such a historic world figure – who isn’t Chinese?

Much less the president of a country where the people couldn’t even pronounce “Ng”, due to that very lack of vowels – at least not without sounding incredibly constipated.

I suppose it’s as likely as someone who shares a name with Saddam Hussein and has a surname that rhymes with Osama replacing George W Bush, who went to war against those two, as the new Commander-in-Chief.

If Obama’s name is exotic, his half-sister’s name is positively extra-terrestrial: Maya Kassandra Soetoro-Ng. When I first saw her last name, I thought it was a typo. So did most Americans, I would think.

Soetoro is the name of the Indonesian man Obama’s mother married after divorcing Obama Sr. Maya is married to Konrad Ng, a Chinese-Canadian whose parents were born in Sabah, Malaysia.

Thus, Soetoro-Ng.

Being thoroughly Westernised, both Maya and Konrad pronounce “Ng” as “Ing”. That’s right. They added a vowel.

I have no idea how Konrad’s father pronounces his surname. But if he is Malaysian, I would guess like a Singaporean – vowel-lessly.

Before Maya and Konrad, arguably the most famous Ng in the US was Ana Ng, the title of my favourite song by the American geek-rock band They Might Be Giants - which is to say it's not that famous at all.

You’ve probably never heard of the song, but that’s okay. Neither have most Americans.

In the chorus of the song, “Ng” is pronounced as “Eng”. That’s right. They added a vowel.

Because sounding constipated in a song is never cool.

- Published in The New Paper, 9 November 2008