Photography Travel

What’s in a Name?

“What’s in a name?” says Juliet to the night sky, in the famous balcony scene of Shakespeare’s play.

I bet she did not know about a baby girl who was so fat that when she sat in lotus position on her grandfather’s lap, folds of  her flesh hung in layers, so he affectionately nicknamed her “Buddha.”

I’ve had a lot more nicknames since then. In 1992, befriended by a couple, a tall, lanky girl from Alabama and her Welsh husband, I was called “Little Bit.” Sitting on their porch in the sleepy Thai town of Minburi, we had actual fried green tomatoes and sips of julep, telling stories, and my friend would drawl in lovely Southern notes, “You’re a funny one, Little Bit. Small, but big on personality.”

In 1994, in the beautiful Berkshires, I painted Melanie’s house with her daughter Alison before taking a three-week train trip across the United States. Sitting in Mel’s kitchen the night before I left, Mel asked me, “What’s the attraction for you with this train trip? Why not stay in Boston with Ali to watch the World Cup match with Colombia?”

“If I had a car,” I told her, “I would have driven cross country. This way is less responsibility,” was my way of telling her I wanted to be in motion. I had an open ended pass for Amtrak; I could stop anywhere and get on again after an indeterminate time; it was at that time, the most liberating travel I knew.

“Well then, you vagabond urchin, you,” Mel gives me the nickname which she calls me to this day,” you’ll have to come back to the Berks sometime after you roam the rest of the world.”

Roaming the world since then, I’ve met a girl named Beer in Bangkok. Her father, she said, loved Carlsberg at the time she was born. “At least I wasn’t named Carlsberg,” Beer said matter-of-factly. The Thai tendency to give nicknames to their children stems from a value. Many Thai names are too long, and calling someone their nickname is more saduak, more convenient.

Names we give our children can tell us what we value. I once met an entire family whose names were golf related. The first born was Birdie, whose younger brother was Par, and whose littlest brother was named Eagle. Their dad loved golf. I’ve also met a lot of Tops, some Firsts, and two guys named Army and Navy. Once I taught a student whose name was Nok, who was so shy she flapped her arms in nervousness. Nok, in Thai, means bird. (She later on became a pilot, but that is entirely another story.)

In Bali, I met six different Wayans. Wayan is a name given to a firstborn baby. The second baby is named Made, the third Nyoman, and the fourth Ketut. Then there’s the caste reference in the names. “I Gusti” refers to the nobility, so my friend named “I Gusti Ngurah Rai” belongs to the landed caste Wesya, is a “gift from heaven,” whose personal name is Rai.


But in Myanmar, names are forever. “We don’t change our names after marriage,” Su Mon tells me. Her name tells me she is born on a Tuesday, since all Tuesday babies have names beginning with S. But no, she says, she was born on a Thursday, which would have meant being named something that begins with P, B, or M. Except the astrologer said no.

“We Burmese consult an astrologer when we have to name a baby,” explains Su Mon. “He tells us the most auspicious name for a baby for his or her birth.”

“But your names are forever,” I repeat the awesome fact.

“Yes,” Su Mon says, smiling, “Burmese names are forever.”

Except of course, in 1988 the military government changed the name of the country without any input from anyone else: from Burma to Myanmar. And many towns had their names changed, too. Moulmein to Mawlamyine. Poor Rangoon became Yangon, and then lost its capital status to Nyapidaw in 2006.

It’s in Burma when I realize that what’s in a name could change with spelling, be meaningful with an intention, or even be eternal, tied to the stars.

When it rains in Rangoon, I feel the Burmese nostalgia as my own, thinking about names. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, another Tuesday baby, wrote in her Letters from Burma, “The word monsoon has always sounded beautiful to me, possibly because we Burmese, who are rather inclined to indulge in nostalgia, think of the rainy season as the most romantic.”

“Monsoon Jazz” by Aloha Lavina.

I remember the romance of rain. South Korea, 1990. The winter Bush, Sr. took soldiers to Iraq. The winter the Bengals won the Super Bowl.

That day in the winter of 1990, I walked from the Hyatt Café where I had been writing all night (endless coffee refills and silence), and Seoul Tower at the top of Namsan was still ablaze. Suddenly, the lights went off. It was almost morning, but the street sweepers weren’t out yet. The men and women in the street market in Haebangchon were quietly setting up. An adushi, an uncle in traditional Korean clothes sat sipping a hot cup of barley tea from the vending machine on the corner and squinted at me through the steam rising out of his cup. Every Sunday I bought a whole roast chicken from him, so I could make roast chicken ceasar salad, my favorite, at home. He taught me a lot of Korean words. For instance, because I always wore black, he called me “Woo Shim,” which is a Korean name meaning “rain heart.”

It began to rain when I reached my apartment, and I was happy, sleepless and simply happy, sitting surrounded by sheets of birthed words. Outside, the sky was calling my name.

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You might also like:

Su Mon in the City – a Closeup of Life in Yangon
The Umbrella Story
An Unkindness of Ravens
The Good, the Bugs, and the Ugly
That Beautiful Longing


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