When introducing themselves, Turks frequently continue on to explain the meaning of their name. When my new friends managed to bypass the barrier of my poor Turkish, knowing the definition made even me, a notorious forgetter of names, remember what they were called. At first though, I was baffled by the ritual, as friends tried to pantomime concepts like angel or light, ideas for which the gestures aren’t really international.
Before I came to Turkey, no one ever asked what my name meant. I knew that there was a family connection, and in bouts of childhood self importance I looked it up in baby-name books at the library, but never could remember for more than a few days. My new Turkish acquaintances asked expectantly, however, for an explanation. I struggled to remember before saying it was a type of flower. Whether or not it was true, it seemed like a normal thing to name a girl, and I glossed over it by explaining I was named after my mother, something that usually does carry across cultures.
It worked until some of my friends actually met my mother, via Skype or in person. “Her name is not Suzanne. How do you get Suzanne from Pam?” A friend demanded.
I was forced to explain the concept of middle names, which I have discovered in many European countries are not the norm. Still, I haven’t found a simple reason why Americans use two names, and while Turks are willing to accept culture as a blanket excuse, it’s not a very satisfying one.
Name meanings do make a great conversation starter. On a long bus ride, I saw a Tuba Pharmacy and turned to the girl next to me, also named Tuba, for an explanation. I was really expecting something musical, and probably large, when she answered matter-of-factly, “An upside-down tree that grows in heaven.”
My church put more emphasis on building self-esteem than describing paradise’s foliage, so I had to take her at her word. I was even more surprised when she leaned in and added, “My parents spelled it right. Your friend spells it with a ğ. I am sure her parents think it is this tree, but that is not how you write it.”
As a teacher, I’ve learned to use it to my advantage. As I chronically struggle to match the faces sitting in front of me with the students on my grading chart, I’ve started to play dumb and ask what their names mean.
“My name is nature,” stated a bold student, and I matched it up with Doga on my class list.
The next girl said her name meant a kind of flower, which wasn’t very helpful so I chose to come back to it, while I reasoned that the girl who said water meant Pinar, spring.
“My name not mean something,” said my next student, Rudi, one who was easy to remember.
I was taken aback. “Your name doesn’t mean anything? Why not?”
“Because it is German. German names don’t mean something.”
“They do,” I insisted, only to be asked what it meant. I wasn’t about to tell him something about a flying reindeer with a glowing nose, so I settled for explaining that in other countries, people don’t know what names mean.
The class looked at me quizzically. How could I explain why we didn’t know something so basic, so fundamental as our own identities?
“It’s cultural,” I stammered, dissatisfied.