what’s in a name?

When we come to Sri Lanka we do a certain amount of visiting. We drop in on K’s relatives, drink tea, smile and move on to the next house. I think I’ve got the hang of these visits now but they used to confound me and they still do bring up lingering questions like: Why doesn’t anyone ever introduce themselves and why am I never introduced?

Answer: People rarely use names. And they all know who I am already so there’s no need to introduce me. And, even though I didn’t realize it at first, I already know who they are too.

Children are called ‘baba’ (baby) until they’re about five years old, maybe longer. Adults refer to children and children refer to each other by their sibling names: Akka and Ayah for older sister and brother, Nangi and Malli for younger sister and brother. People your parents’ age are Auntie and Uncle. People your grandparents’ age are Achchi and Seeya. Even within families, names are sometimes not known. Last night at dinner, an uncle stumbled over his nephew’s name and needed reminding. Another uncle was unable to answer when I asked him the name of his new baby granddaughter. “We just call her sudu-baba [fair-skinned baby],” he said.

I’ve got the family tree mentally mapped out and I usually know who is sitting across from me. I understand that a particularly young aunt may be known as an older sister. Now that I’ve gotten used to it, it works. The only confusion remains when I try to refer to someone and I have to mention the colour of their house or the date we visited to make myself understood. ‘No, not the daughter of the aunt who was married to the Navy guy, the daughter of the aunt who was married to the Army guy. No the younger one. Right: her.’

The other day we went to see Saddhu Maama (Priest-Uncle). He’s a Buddhist priest. Saddhu Seeya to the kids.

I like visiting Saddhu Maama. He doesn’t speak any English. The first time we went, I was alarmed to see K. and his mother bow down to the ground in front of him as we arrived. Not alarmed by the action but alarmed because no one had warned me. Was I supposed to do that? How is it done? How far down do you go? Do you touch the ground? His feet? Nothing? How do you do it while holding a baby? I settled for an awkward half-bow, hands pressed together, and that seemed sufficient.

I’ve been to visit him four or five times. I’m pretty sure he doesn’t know my name. I don’t know his. I think it’s ok, though, because his nephew doesn’t either.

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5 responses to “what’s in a name?

  1. Michael Gennis

    I so love reading your blog!

  2. Kahathuduwe Wimalatissa–“Saadu Maama’s” name just rolled off my tongue, after all these years, thanks to your blog. Our relationship will never be the same!

    How to Bow (that could be a title if I wrote a blog):

    Index fingers should touch forehead, nose pointing heartwards, resting on thumbs extended perpendicular to the other fingers. This is far more important than how low you go. Anthropometric and anthropological research demonstrates beyond doubt that a perfectly respectable–and respectful–bow can vary a great deal in elevation (0-85% of normal height) and cross-section (from a mere 20 degree bend at the waist to the most scrunched up prostration), depending on one’s social location, physical condition and several other subjective and objective determinations ranging from spiritual enlightenment to gravitational force. In any bowing situation, you will therefore be fine, petty much whatever you do, no matter what your cultural identity is. It is fine to not have one too.

  3. Thanks for explaining all that. I love it. I know that feeling of pride from working out something that everyone else takes for granted in your adopted culture.

  4. oh yeah, that’s what his name is – Kahathuduwe Wimalathissa. i hope i don’t have to go again to see him now that you guys have been. i like seeing him, just not the trip on the bus to get there! and then visiting the three/four other houses in amma’s village that don’t stop trying to feed me!

  5. What an interesting post + pictures! plus a ‘how to’ guide’ for bowing in the comments! Love it. The appropriate greeting is a minefield where I am living in the mid-east. Depending on your interlocutor’s personal orientation (religion, age, gender, educational background) it can land anywhere from formal hand-on-heart + bow with no touching, to western handshake, to hand holding, to a big hug and elaborate triple kiss that I still have not mastered. It remains difficult for me to read all the clues and body language to know which one is appropriate at what moment – ever the goofy foreigner.

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