Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Name Post: The Futility of Phone Books

Although my experience in Bali has shown me that names here are anything but formulaic, there is still the question of how a community operates when most of its members have the same public name. Despite the fact that most people here tend to have four names each, their birth order name is the one most commonly used outside the family.

A few weeks ago I met a kind man in the village of Singapadu who wanted to help me with my research and donated a few old phone books to my cause. While I was grateful, when we went through them together what I found most interesting about them was how completely useless they are here. Phone books in Bali seem to operate not as an attempt to help people find each other, but solely as a way to mirror the western world. There are pages and pages of “I Made Anantas”, (male in the Sudra Caste, second-born in their family, creative name meaning “dragon”) even in the same village. If you were actually trying to find someone in Bali, the last place you’d look is the phone book.

That might be a slight exaggeration, but if you think about it, a person named “Wayan” in Bali shares his or her name with over a quarter of the population. Even if you know a person’s gender and caste (giving you the prefix to “Wayan”) you’re still not getting very far. John Smith in Connecticut has nothing to complain about.

The other day I spoke with my Bahasa Indonesian teacher, Nyoman, about her name and she was explaining that if someone came to her village (Tabanam) and asked where Nyoman was, everyone would laugh, because every family has a Nyoman. Instead, you could use the last part of her name, “Sudiadnyani”, but those names aren’t frequently used outside the family. More likely, what you’d do is try to describe Nyoman through what she does. As in, “Does Nyoman live here?” “Male or Female?” “Female.” “Which Nyoman?” “The mother of four boys.” “What does she do?” “She’s a teacher in Ubud.” And the conversation would have to go through her relationships with others in order to communicate exactly who she is—woman, mother, aunt, daughter, citizen of Tabanam, teacher in Ubud. Although it can make for difficulties in tracking someone down (a friend and I could not figure out for weeks if we had met the same “Ida Bagus Anom” or not), there is also something that also makes so much sense about this system. Because what exactly do each of our names stand for, if not for who we are in our relationships to other people?

Just as the name Wayan places someone as the first-born in their family, the titles people call each other also depend on their relationships. Although in the United States, it might be considered rude if you didn’t know the first name of a friend’s mother, in Bali, it would be considered completely polite to just refer to her as “Sarah’s Mom”. In fact, if I’ve met Sarah’s Mom through Sarah, calling her “Ibu Sarah” instead of using her first name would make a lot more sense.

It might be oversimplifying to say that an ideology of individualism in the United States is what contributes to the impulse to make names stand alone there. Although Americans are often named after their family members, most often these names are also meant to stand on their own, regardless of context. Parents might shy away from giving their children names that are too popular. While I share this impulse, and tend to prefer more unusual names in general, I wonder what it is that’s at the root of worrying so much about individuality. I remember in my elementary school classrooms, the kids with common names were grumpy about having to go by “Hannah H.” and “Hannah C.” to differentiate between them. That kind of anxiety about sharing a name would not be understood here. Neither would the idea of monogramming. It would seem absolutely ridiculous to get a pencil or notecards with the name “Wayan” on it.

It is perhaps, also oversimplifying when I say that it makes sense to me that names here are dependent on people’s relationships to each other because this is a more collective society. Oversimplifying, but maybe true. Just think of the 1500 men taking turns to carry a dead body in a 100-foot tower to be cremated. Think of the fact that there are no homes for the elderly here and very few daycares. Think of the idea that every month everyone in the village gets together and establishes regulations and rules and celebrations for them to live by. Think of how much collectivity is involved in performance and art.

These naming patterns speak volumes to the ways in which these cultures and communities operate. In Bali, people are always defined in relationship to each other. When a baby is born, they are a reincarnation of an ancestor. Sons never move out of their parents houses. If you can’t have your own children, it is expected you will adopt. When you share a name with most of the population, it is a given that there are more important things than your individual identity. It makes vanity license plates look pretty silly.

©nabj 2011

1 comment:

  1. The way names seem to work in that part of Indonesia make me think of medieval Europe when Western surnames began!

    You're exactly right, I think, to consider the naming practice in relation to nature of the community in which people live. Here in Wales, formal surnames developed quite late, with patronymics still the norm in many parts of Wales until the 19th Century. Even when they did crystalize, they were far fewer in number than -- names like Jones, Williams, Edwards, Hughes and Davies being the usual. So even today, in rural communities, people are often identified by what they do and where they live exactly, like Gwyn 'the Post' for a man called Gwyn who is a postman, etc.