Whatchamacallit 76: Tikki Tikki Tembo

Tikki Tikki Tembo

This is a book that I remember from my childhood – but not the details.

Sometimes in idle moments my mind would play back the name of the first-born son: as I recalled it, “Rikki Rikki Tembo Nosa Rembo….” And then my mind would start cycling the name and I would remember the moral of the story, which was to give your children simple names that were easy to say otherwise their full names might prevent them from being helped in a timely fashion.

Recently I had a conversation where I was reminded of this book (unfortunately, ironically, I do not remember the actual conversation) – and I was in a position to try and identify the book. Thanks to Google, I did so. Thanks to Amazon, it is now in my hands.

Holy cow – I had remembered basic moral of the story correctly – I’d even remembered that the story was set in China. I had not remembered that the eldest child, the one whose name was Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo, suffers a near drowning in a well because his mother wants his name correctly said by the younger child, who is named Chang.

What a disturbing story, on that front.

Never mind that, apparently, the story was stolen from Japan but set in China. The Wikipedia page on this book highlights some troubling aspects to the story’s history and the fact that it was moved from Japan to China. It also lists some criticism of the book:

It has been criticized for “reinforc[ing] the stereotype that Asian names sound like nonsense syllables”, especially as the name of the title character is nothing like actual Chinese and the common name Chang (pinyin Zhāng) is a surname and not a given name. No similar Chinese word means “little or nothing”.

Some of the cultural incongruities are:

The mother’s dress resembles a Japanese kimono.
The titular character appears to wear Japanese wooden sandals (geta).
During the second visit to the well, on the “Festival of the Eighth Moon” (presumably meaning the Mid-Autumn Festival), the boys eat rice cakes instead of mooncakes.
When Chang addresses his mother, he is depicted bowing backwards.

During the Covid-19 crisis, I am going to try and make a point of writing a blog post about an object in my home.

We’ll see how long this lasts.

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