Christine Rhyner

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What's in a Name?
Monday, September 30, 2013 by Vhristine

  Names are important in Vietnam.  Introducing themselves to foreigners, English-speaking Vietnamese will often translate the meaning of their names.  “I’m Orchid(Lan)” one might say.  Or “Shining Jade(Ngoc Minh)” or “Spring Rice(Lua Xuan).”  Some names sounded like poetry.  I knew three brothers named “Mountain(Son),” “River(Giang),” and “Ocean(Hai),”  I had a friend named “Moon Lute(Nguyet Cam)” in honor of a traditional Vietnamese stringed instrument.  Another couple had named their three boys, all born during the years of the American War, Ling(after Abe Lincoln), Red(for the Communists), and Binh(which means “peaceful”).  Binh must have been a popular name during the years of war, because I knew a lot of Binhs who were born at that time.

      In Vietnam, names also carry a powerful force.  Tradition clams that evil spirits like to steal babies, particularly the attractive ones.  In the countryside, where old customs linger longer, new parents would go to lengths to make their children seem unappealing.  They would never compliment their newborns.  Instead, they’d call them “ugly,” or “rat,” or even “shit,” in order to trick the spirits into staying away.  Ironically, even such hideous names would come to sound like the sweetest of endearments when they were uttered by adoring parents.  Urban Vietnamese, like Tung and Huong, liked to scoff at superstitions, but even they would cringe when I forgot the custom and cooed over how beautiful the baby was.  “Trom via,” they’d hiss, reminding me to say that phrase before the compliment.  As one friend later translated it, trom via meant “to sneakily talk behind a spirit”—in other words, to keep evil away.  …The supposedly irrational concern over “evil spirits” actually spoke to very real, widespread, dangers that newborns in Vietnam had faced forever:  poor hygiene, inadequate nutrition, and lack of medical care.  Because infant mortality was such a risk, tradition dictated that only close family members would visit a new baby before its one-month birthday, the time at which its chance of survival was thought to be more secure and the moment of which it could be brought into society and openly named.

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