Saying goodbye this morning (last night? yesterday?) in Burlington was hard. Once on the plane though, I felt pretty calm. I think I am as ready for this year as I’ll ever be. It also helped that I made a friend on my flight and inadvertently began my project. The woman sitting next to me on my flight from DC was Javanese and was also traveling to Singapore and then home to Indonesia.
She was curious about my project and told me that her own name was a blend of an old Javanese name and a Sanskrit one. She talked about how much it had meant to her parents and why they chose a name that reflected multiple cultural traditions. She also said that through her name her parents expressed their greatest hope for her. I realized partway into her explanation that I did not actually know what her name was. It felt suddenly rude to ask. Knowing that her name expressed her parents’ greatest hope for her made her made the question of what it was become something that felt more intimate then if it was a name her parents simply liked the sound of. I remember at my Watson interview the question came up of how comfortable I would feel just sitting down with strangers and asking them how they got their name. At the time I thought for the most part I’d feel comfortable doing that but my conversation with this woman made me recognize that because names can symbolize so many different things in the places I’m going, the question begins to carry immense weight and the level of intimacy that it comes to represent may change in each place. Also , knowing each other’s names also would break the line of anonymity; we’d move from strangers chatting on a flight into people who could identify each other. In that liminal space of an airplane where people are always walking a balance of how much to speak to one another, names seemed like a big leap. Asking that question also meant I was taking the plunge and beginning my project. Then and there.
I got over it and finally asked her what her name actually was. She gave me her business card and told me I should come to Java while I’m in Indonesia and stay with her and her sister.
Her name is Widya Prasetyanti. She explained that Widya is traditionally spelled with a “V” in Java but the “W” makes it into a Sanskrit name. Regardless of spelling, the name means “knowledge.” Prasetyanti was also a last name her parents gave her (not a surname that was passed down to her from them as it most often would be in the United States). She explained that “praset” means promise or loyalty, and the ending of her name “yanti” indicated she was female. “Yanto” would indicate she was male. Put together, her name reflects a promise to knowledge; one that her parents swore her to at birth by giving her that name. She laughed telling me this because she has always been devoted to her studies—she’s gone to university in Japan and then went on to get masters in sociology and public health. She said when she was younger she used to be angry at her parents for making her name start with a “W” instead of a “V” because it meant that alphabetically it came one letter later. In her elementary school in Java, the teacher would call on students throughout the day by going through the alphabetical list. Widya hated that her first name started with a “W” because it meant she’d always be called on at the end of the day when she was tired and only the hard questions remained.
We talked about the question if parents are casting their children into a role by giving them a particular name. It is impossible to know whether Widya would still be continuing her studies if she had been given a name that didn’t mean a promise to do so. Either she has followed that course as a result of the inspiration of her name or it is more coincidental. Or, as I suspect, maybe it was knowing that her parents prioritized a commitment to knowledge above all else in naming her that may have led her towards that path. It is not the name itself but the knowledge that her parents cared so much about her education that they created a name that expressed that.
And so it begins…