Like gender, sexuality, and the cleanliness of tables, one's name is very fluid in Thai culture. My fellow Princeton in Asia fellow Elena, who sometimes goes by ARAI NAAAA in Thailand, has a great story about nomenclatural fluidity. Here it is, as I remember it:
One day, Elena's desk mate got up and left the office without saying where she was going. She came back twenty minutes later, no sign on her face as to what she had done. Elena was curious, and so she asked her desk mate, "Hey, where did you go?" And her desk mate looks at her, totally neutral expression on her face, and tells her that she went to the bank, because she decided she wanted to change her name from Cholanda to Chollapat.
Just like that, as though depositing a check or withdrawing funds: she had changed her name from Cholanda to Chollapat.
Do Thai people not care what you call them? I know that I always bristle a bit when someone gets my name wrong, someone I believe should know it. Through high school, teachers were constantly calling me "Josh" instead of "Jason," as a "Josh Gilbert" with many of the same teachers had graduated a few years before me. But it kept happening in college, too: people who could not possibly have known Josh Gilbert kept on calling me Josh.
I think I know why: because I look like a Josh. In fact, I can see the thought process running through these confused, desperately-searching ones of the misplaced name:
"God, what is this Jew's name? I know it starts with a J. It must be something Hebrew...look at that schnoz! I bet he owns at least five tallises! It's gotta be Joshua. It must be Joshua. Yeshua. Maybe Jacob? Jake? No, Joshua. Joshua. Joshua."
"That's not Jewish."
"I said I really liked Veckatimest!"
And so on.
I was thinking about names because (oh, there's a point!) of something that boggled my mind last night. Boggled it. Scrabbled it. Monopolied it. All of these board game verbs work in this context.
Arai naaa and I like this bar called Berlin, mostly because of these two great waitresses, students at CMU, who are very kind and speak questionable English. They are hilarious. Anyway, their names are Bamboo and Nai.
Last night Nai was working, and we were trying to make plans to see a movie. I already had two phone numbers in my phone for her ("Nai" and "Nai 2"), and I had told her that last time I had called her Bamboo had answered. So she looked at my phone, and the numbers I had, and said that neither of those were her numbers, even though she had entered both of them. This is actually something that happens all the time. Thai people change phone numbers about once a month, as far as I can tell. Why? Because they are crazy. I don't understand it.
So anyway, she takes my phone and enters a new number.
"You can call me at Nai 2" she says. Why she put her number under "Nai 2" and not "Nai"--see above. Because they are crazy. Recurring theme.
Fast forward to later in the night: Nai finds out that I can write Thai and is very excited. I have a pen and paper, and I ask her to spell her name, because spelling in Thai is super, super difficult, as most consonants and vowels have two or three different symbols in the alphabet, making it impossible to just phonetically spell something.
Anyway, she writes her name. I look down at the page. She has written (in Thai letters) N - long I - N.
I ask her, Wait...your name is "Nine"?
"Yes, Nine. Like Gao (Thai for "nine"). Nine. My lucky number."
This is mind-blowing to me. For three months I have been calling her Nai. I have sent her text messages saying "Hello Nai." She has entered her phone number into my cell phone as "Nai." And not once did she think to correct me. Actually, you have been calling me by the wrong name multiple times a day for the past three months. Put an N at the end of my name, you fat Farang idiot. It's Jason, not Josh, Turdhouse. Go chew a dick.
None of that. Not once. My name is Nine. Like the number. Like the English word, Nine. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, in theaters now. Nine. Nine. Nine. Nine.