All in a Name
- Asia, Nepal
My name is Steve Iams. It is a name that has caused problems for me wherever I go in the world. It used to be my last name that caused me trouble. No one could pronounce it correctly: Yams, Jams, Eeams, Aims...there were all kinds of unpleasant variations. Then, along came the dog food and, all of a sudden, Iams became a household name. "Like the dog food?" asked the supermarket cashier, the telemarketer, and the university professor. "Like the dog food," I'd confirm. "Any relation?" they'd ask. "Unfortunately for me, no," I'd respond. It's no glamorous thing to be associated with dog food, I realize, but I remind people that it's better to be named Iams than Purina or Kibbles n' Bits. Iams is synonymous with gourmet, at least where dogs are concerned. Best of all, after the dog food appeared on supermarket shelves, people could finally pronounce my name correctly. They might be imagining a big pile of Labrador Chunks when they say it, but at least they're saying it right.
Then, I joined the Peace Corps and came to Nepal, where I had a myriad experiences, this time with my first name. Many people had difficulty pronouncing Steve. Suddenly, I became e-Steef. I tried in vain to help people say my name properly, but no matter how many times I repeated myself – "It's Steve, not e-Steef" – the 'e' remained. There was simply no eScaping eSteef. Personally, I felt the name eStunk, but for a while, it looked like I'd be eStuck with it.
Before long, some new variations of my name began to crop up. In April, I received a Nepalese New Year's card from a neighborhood girl addressed to "my elder brother, Stiff." It's the only New Year's card Stiff has ever received, and certainly one worth holding on to. A few weeks ago, I gave a vocabulary quiz to the eighth-grade class. The quiz consisted of six words the students had learned from a short story we'd read in class. The students were instructed to use the vocabulary word in a short sentence. One of the words was "steep." Grading the quizzes, I flipped through quiz after quiz where the students had written "Mount Everest is steep." One student, however, provided a much more original answer: "Our teacher's name is Steep," she wrote. I gave her full credit.
People in Nepal also seem to have trouble writing my name, even if they're copying it from an official document where my name is spelled correctly. Last month, I received a 'VIP' card from a restaurant in Kathmandu. The restaurant manager borrowed my Peace Corps ID to transcribe my name, then handed over a card identifying me as "Stayven, Peace Crops Volunteer." Very Important Person indeed. Even Peace Corps took a turn in the name butchering game. When I received my three-month living allowance check in May, the check was made out to a "Mr. Stevens Lams." I immediately pointed out their error. "It doesn't matter," the finance officer said, "They'll cash the check anyway." Yes it does matter, I said. It matters to me. Stevens Lams is not my name! Nor is eSteef, or Stiff, or Steep. My name, for the record, is Steven Edward Iams.
At least, it was. My 104-year-old host-grandmother, Hajuramma, was simply having trouble remembering my name; "Steve" was a name she'd never heard before. So one night after dinner, my host-father made a proposal that would help Hajuramma remember my name: I would receive a Nepalese name. The idea was an intriguing one—it would not only help Hajuramma, it could've also meant the death of eSteef, Stiff, and Stevens Lams, in one fell swoop. Other Volunteers had received Nepali names and it seemed to help them feel more integrated into their communities and host-families. And so I agreed. I would let my family think about it overnight, and in the morning at breakfast they would crown me with a Nepalese name. I was quite excited!
In the morning, I walked upstairs for breakfast. I was as eager to know my new name as my host father was to give it to me. "Your Nepalese name will be ... HARE KRISHNA!!!" The room erupted in smiles and laughter. Hare Krishna? Were they joking? I was immediately reminded of my eighth-grade class trip to Washington, D.C., where orange robed men with shaved heads danced in circles on the Mall, chanting "Hare Hare Hare Kriiiiishna, Hare Hare Hare Kriiiiishna!" I was too stunned to protest. Besides, I didn't want to hurt their feelings. So, I simply became Hare Krishna.
My new name caught on quickly. Before I knew it, Hare Krishna became the most popular man in the village. Unlike Steve, who was mainly popular with kids, Hare Krishna seems to appeal to a wider demographic. Old men like to chat with Hare Krishna about this year's rice crop. Middle-aged women seem to appreciate Hare Krishna's approachability and now seem less reserved to invite me in for tea and snacks, something Steve had lacked with that difficult-to-pronounce English name. But, by far, Hare Krishna's greatest appeal is with the under-30, unmarried male crowd, who have welcomed Hare Krishna into their circle of friends like one of their own.
Aside from the popularity, there are other benefits afforded to Hare Krishna that Steve never had. One day after school, I walked down to a carpenter's shop to pick up a desk I was having made. The shop was about an hour's walk from my village, and I didn't feel like hauling the desk all the way home on my back. Just then it started to rain and I was about ready to give up on bringing the desk home when a small bus jam-packed with people came puttering around the corner. From afar I saw the driver stick his head out the window and he called out, "OH-HO! HARE KRISHNA!!!" The bus came to a screeching halt next to the carpenter's shop; the Hare Krishna express had arrived. There was literally no room on the bus, but the driver and the bus assistant quickly shuffled enough bodies up to the roof to make room for me and my desk. As I stepped aboard, I sensed that the commotion of hushed voices centered on me: "Who is this Hare Krishna? Do you know Hare Krishna? Oh yeah, Hare Krishna's a teacher at ..."
Best of all, everyone from 3-year-olds to 103-year-olds can recognize, pronounce, and spell my new name. The name has staying power. Even I'm using it. Last week I dropped off a roll of film at a photo shop in Kathmandu, and when the store clerk asked for my name for the pick-up voucher, I didn't even hesitate: "Hare Krishna," I said, "Hare Hare Hare Krishna."