Sunday, 30 November 2014

What's in a Name?

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When you first begin teaching in Bhutan, one of the biggest challenges is the names. Some students use one, others two and nowadays many students have three names. Now, if a student has 3 names e.g. Sonam Choki Dorji – you are supposed to use all 3. You can’t just call her Sonam.  Also, there are no ‘family names’ and so there are no clues as to who is related. It took weeks before I learned that 2 of the kids in my class are children of teachers at the school.

Moreover, the pool of names is quite a small one. Most people you meet simply have a different mix of the same few names. E.g. in my small class of 19 I have a Sonam Dorji, Ugyen Dorji, Pema Lhamo, Yeshi Lhamo (it goes on.) I actually have (by first name) 5 Sonams, 2 Pemas, 2 Kuenzangs. They are all a mixture of boys and girls too. It’s not easy to tell by someone’s name alone whether they are male or female but someone explained that the order of the names gives you a clue. Thus , Choki Dorji is always a boy, Pema Choki is always a girl and Pema Yangzom always a boy.

The only Lois and Amelie in the school, surrounded by Pema and Sonam
Another strange thing is that siblings often have the same first name. E.g. I teach Kinley (boy) and his sister (also Kinley) is in Year 10. I also teach a boy called Karma with a sister called Karma in class 2 and I teach a girl Sonam who has a sister also called Sonam in Class 5 and her Dad’s name is Sonam as well. Now, a child may have 3 names but surely Mum or Dad just shortens it to one when they want their child to come quickly. Maybe when Mum yells, ‘Sonam’ they all come running.

Pema Choki, Yeshi Lhamo and Amelie Jade

In Australia I’ve usually learnt most names after one day and all of them by the second. In Bhutan it took me almost 2 weeks to stop mixing everyone up.
Now, I’m told that parents don’t pick the names themselves – they take the newborn bub to a lama and he chooses. I asked my hostess Pema Choki (see High Society blog) how the lama chooses the names but she confessed that she didn’t know. She did tell me that some babies are named ‘on the spot’ whereas others have to return to discover their nomenclature. No one can explain why some people have only one name whilst others have 3 but I’m told that 3 names is becoming increasingly fashionable. This leaves the ‘single-namers’ such as Dawa, Tashi and Tenzhin appearing a little ‘under named’ and possibly feeling a tad old-fashioned.

Still, trends come and go and Tashi might once again be the height of fashion. Someone might even write a book about him! (or her).

My class of Pemas, Sonams, Kuenzangs and Ugyens.

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