Becoming Bai Dtong

By Zari Havercome
June 25, 2018

In Thailand, everyone is given a nickname. 

My pre-service training host family and neighbors.
My pre-service training host family and neighbors.

There is a lot of pride and meaning into the way one is given their birth name, which has to do a lot with the time, day of the week and many other factors. However, one’s nickname is probably the name that most people would call you by.

Personally, I have had a hard time with nicknames because my name is so short that nicknames were usually longer than just saying my name. I also have had an issue with getting people to pronounce my name the way it was meant to be pronounced.

All that being said, along with some knowledge that the Thai alphabet does not have a letter “Z,” I knew that my name would not be what it was meant to be here and I was emotionally prepared to handle that.

Fast forward to when my birthday, only a few days into our training. That was the day we had the first of many language stations. It was extremely emotional for many reasons:

  • I was fulfilling a dream of joining the Peace Corps
  • I was in Thailand, a place I have dreamt of visiting
  • I was away from friends and family, etc.
Zari with members of her community at a monk ordination.
With members of the community at a monk ordination.

But the most emotional moment was when I was sitting in the Alphabet station, with my paper crown and sash that staff made for me, and found a Thai consonant that would give me the “Z” sound for my name.

Imagine going through a learning exercise that everyone could more or less participate in, like writing your name, and feeling like you can’t join. The moment I found that letter, which is more of a hard “S” sound, and wrote my name in Thai was great. I then asked the aa-jaan (teacher) to read it and she said my name more clearly than any random English speaker I have ever met. If anyone can relate to the struggles of having people say your name right, you would understand why I bawled, instantaneously.

I knew that I was supposed to be here, I was revitalized! I felt like Thailand made space just for me. Later, after a cultural session during pre-service training when our aa-jaans (teachers) told us that we could go to our homestay and ask our families for a nickname, I did and I got a nickname I love.

My chuulen (nickname) is Bai Dtong. My family gave me that name because I have a niece and her nickname is Bai Toey. Her name is the word for small banana leaves. My name is the word for full-grown banana leaves. I am so very proud of my nickname because long, long ago, Thai people used large banana leaves as a multi-purpose resource that allowed them to collect some of their most sacred things like food and water. Banana leaves are used to weave beautiful baskets and can also carry offerings and other important things down rivers during cherished holidays like Loi Krathong.

My nickname, Bai Dtong, means big banana leaves. Some cute neighborhood kids started to do our secret hand shake with REAL big banana leaves as a joke with me.
My nickname, Bai Dtong, means big banana leaves. Some cute neighborhood kids started to do our secret handshake with REAL big banana leaves as a joke with me.

Moral of the story is I am a big freaking deal to have been awarded this nickname. Things became even more profound when I realized that another nickname I was given in Honduras is similar to Bai Dtong. In Buena Vista, Honduras, I was known as Banana! Would you believe it?! Years later, across oceans, nations and languages, I have come back to this name.

In doing so, I have completely owned it. As I integrate into my area, with all the pride I can muster, I introduce myself like this: “Saa wat dii ka, Di chaan chuu Zari dtee chuulen Bai Dtong ka. Di chaan bpen kon Thai ka.” That translates to: “Greetings, my name is Zari but my nickname is Bai Dtong (Banana Leaf). I am a Thai person.” After saying this to any and everyone I met, it became my catchphrase.

Now, I walk or bike around my city and can hear women, children and men yell “Bai Dtong” and I feel loved. When I pass in the market, vendors ask me over to come chat and introduce me to their customers. When I go out to eat and my students see me, they tell their families that “Bai Dtong is over there, say hi!” And when I am getting ready to bike on a road that might have street dogs, I usually hear a loud “Bai Dtong” from a neighbor who is telling me to be careful.

My pre-service training experience challenged me. But also, I scored Intermediate High on my language proficiency test and my permanent site placement is in the same province in which I have already made these strong relationships.

It seems that I have been a big hit here and it looks like the Peace Corps, and the province of Suphanburi, both agree.

Zari Havercome

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