If you ever come across a Lao person and see that they have a name containing 20 or so characters, all seemingly put together at random and with no regard for phonetics, have no fear – chances are, the person probably has a “play” name that is much shorter and easier to manage. It will most likely be an embarrassing physical attribute or, at the very least, endearingly descriptive. They’re like prison names but less scary (usually). I have relatives called “Short Girl,” “Black Eye,” “Elephant,” and “Testicles.” Don’t ask me how that last one came about. Surprisingly, it is a rather common Lao nickname.
The anthropologist in me has always been fascinated by Southeast Asian naming traditions and kinship, which are probably very similar to those of other cultures. Take, for example, the superstition that a name is linked to health – if a young child falls ill too often, it is customary to change his or her name to one that agrees with the child’s spirit. My mother says this is what happened with my older brother.
Kinship terms reflect the innate sense of relatedness among our people, whether or not they’re actually related. You may hear us call someone “Sister” or “Auntie” or even “Mother” who plays none of those roles in our lives. Additionally, you might call your mother or father’s sister “Sao” if she is the younger sibling or “Pa” if she is older. Grandparent terms vary as well. “Pou” is reserved for your paternal grandfather; “Paw-thou” is your mother’s father. Similarly, “Yah” is paternal, whereas “Mae-thou” is maternal. These are terms that caused much confusion when I was growing up; there was a time I thought I was related to all sorts of people who are just friends of the family.
I only recently came to terms with my nickname, mainly because people tease me about it. My mother likes to tell the story of my birth to long lost relatives. She says I was too impatient to stay in her womb, too eager to face life’s many disappointments. As a result I arrived into this world resembling a pink, two-pound-eight-ounce crustacean. So they called me Goong Nang. Loosely translated, it means “shrimp girl.”
The relatives usually turn towards me and sigh, at about the point in the story where Mom explains that I was no bigger than her forearm. Then they say, almost reverently, “How clever she must be.” I squirm with embarrassment and suddenly feel over-scrutinized. There is a cultural saying that premature babies grow up to be smarter and more perceptive than other kids. I always wondered if people just said that to encourage us. The only things I attribute to being born early are knocked knees and endocrine problems. However, I absolutely believe that adversity creates resilient people.
The name Goong Nang faded as I got older, reserved for jokes and nostalgia. I grew to an unexpected size which, for my family, is a colossal five-foot-three. I also have large hands and feet and broad shoulders, relatively speaking anyway. I basically look like a giant among natives. So, in a sense, the nickname has taken on an ironic nature, like the chubby person everyone calls “Skinny” or the tall person named “Shorty.” I find it very strange but also heartwarming that people in Laos treat Goong Nang like my actual name, as if their perception of me is mostly based on baby photos Mom sent over years ago.