Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Name Post: The Question of Agency

Ida Bagus Deja Kamusa

-IDA BAGUS: Indicates a male in the Brahmana Caste
-DEJA: Meaning lightning from the gods
-KAMUSA: Refers to a brave, respectful man

It seems appropriate to Bali’s nature that every time I set about to do something for my project (meet up with someone, take notes, do a formal interview) something goes wrong and it never happens, but when I’m not looking for it, I find exactly what I’m looking for. I can feel the mystics and the Balians squealing with glee.

Today my plans fell through and it was my first rainy day in Ubud so I had a rather slow morning. I decided to wander to an inexpensive warung near my homestay that I had never been to before for lunch. I ordered some food and started talking to the man working there who wanted to know where I’m from.* He wanted to practice his English because he said American tourists are much easier for him to understand than British or Australians. It turned out that he had lived in the states for two years and worked in the kitchen of an American cruise ship as well as a Chinese restaurant in the food court of a mall in New Jersey. He had lived with some other Indonesians in a small New Jersey apartment and they all sent money back to their families in Bali monthly.

He moved back here in 2003 and started his family. He told me the story of his son’s name, “Ida Bagus Deja Kamusa.” Because he’s from an upper caste (indicated by “Ida Bagus”) he and his son actually don’t have the traditional birth order names. Apparently, it becomes optional. While I found this interesting, what I found most interesting was his explanation for how he chose his son’s name. Because in Bali the baby most often isn’t named until the three month ceremony, this man had been thinking about his son’s name for a while. His son is named “Deja Kamusa” which means lightning, but as he says it, “not like the bad kind, not like thunder, but the good kind, lightning from the gods.” Kamusa apparently refers to a “brave, respectful son.” The man told me, “that is all I ask of my son. That he is respectful, that he gives back to his family, back to his village” The man told me he had been thinking about naming his son “Deja Kamusa” for months, but it couldn’t be official until the naming ceremony and until he consulted with a Balinese calendar and a priest. Sure enough, it turned out that because of the date the baby was born, “Deja Kamusa” was an excellent name for him to have.

Questions arose for me such as: how much of this decision was based on the fact the man liked the name for his son and had been thinking about it, and how much of the decision was based on the Balinese calendar? Or even, could the man have liked a name for his son that didn’t match up with the calendar? I don’t think this is a question unique to Balinese parents naming their children. I think that there is often a tension between the agency parents have in naming a child and their simultaneous desire to leave the decision up to something larger, even if this something larger is expressed in different terms.

One thing I’ve noticed is that it seems in any culture, once a name is given to a child, it is automatically thought of as the right one. In Western culture, parents often believe that their child turned out to fit her name, which to me, is not entirely different than the idea that it was some kind of destiny. Although parents in the United States often debate what to name their baby, it seems that once they give this child a name, there is a universal feeling that it is the right name. I’ve never heard a parent say, for example, “Well we couldn’t decide between David or Zachary, and now that he’s been Zachary for five years, he really seems more like a David. I really messed that one up.” Somehow, Zachary will always seem like a Zachary.

There seems to be the impulse to believe that a certain name completely suits a person (an impulse I also believe in), while at the same time, this means a dismissal of the fact that the child could have been given a different name, and, dare I say it, that name could also be said to completely suit the person. Cross culturally, there is a reluctance to admit this. Parents seem to want to forget that they were the ones who had that control, preferring instead to leave it up to something besides themselves whether it is their perception of their child (“She looks so much like an Emily!”), a set of candles over the alphabet, or the Balinese Calendar. Regardless, there is the hope that a name was meant to be and we look for signs to confirm it.

The man at the restaurant had smiled, “It’s the perfect name for him. He is twenty months old but he is Deja Kamusa!”

The word for “thank you” in Bahasa Indoneisan is “Terima Kasih” which actually means “I receive, I give” as in, I am taking what you just gave me, and in return, I am giving these words back to you. Maybe this is a stretch, but it could act as a potential answer to this question of agency in naming. Maybe it’s not a matter of the parents or the gods or destiny or happenstance but maybe it’s up those named themselves. Because those who are named receive (at least initially, as infants), and in return, we give—by being our parents perfect Deja Kamusa or Zachary or Emily or Gusti. Or maybe, no matter what we do, we just would be, regardless of how the name came about. Because they wouldn’t have it any other way.

*(For the sake of privacy, I’m going to leave his name out).



  1. This question of whether a name is a destiny or whether a child grows to fit a name is a truly fascinating one. The universe being the complex place it is, I am certainly seduced by the belief that it is destiny, and that in some weird, inexplicable kind of way -- if parents leave themselves open to the messages the universe gives -- the name best suited to their baby will come to them.

    What it is about the name that makes it right though, if this is true, makes for food for thought. The meaning? The combination of letters? Numerology?

    With the skeptic's hat on, it is perhaps more the reality that children simply grow into their names, and once a name is given, people become so used to that individual wearing that name that they do find it impossible to imagine them called something else.

    Most people, I find, are loyal to their names, whether it is very common or very unusual. I'm sure that some of this must reflect how they feel about their parents and their childhoods, and the experience they've had with that name.

    In a culture like Indonesia's where it is the accepted norm to believe that a name is destined, I would suspect (and you'll be able to confirm, perhaps), that they demonstrate even more loyalty.

    But in the West, there are enough people who do hate their own names to demonstrate that regardless of whether or not people think they suit it, THEY don't feel like they suit it. And I personally know quite a few people who regret the names they chose for their children, and feel that they got them wrong.

    Waiting 3 months before a name is bestowed seems like a very good idea to me!

  2. From Mary Beth via vbj:

    Dear Nell, your blog is wonderful. As always, I appreciate your use of language as you describe people, interactions, the naming question. I admire your courage to embark on this journey and then to move at the pace required of the place you are located. All of this is evident in the quality and tone of the posts. Keep learning and listening. Stay open to being influenced by each person. What a wonderful beginning.

    As for names: I think they are the first gifts from parents to their child. Regardless of the traditions, I have to believe that love is the uniting element.

    Mary Beth Doyle (named in honor of my great grandmother)