Friday, January 11, 2013

The Waranya Miricle

Alert the media! Two consecutive test takers in the same row had the same name.

Americans don’t realize how much of a shock this was to me. There’s nothing surprising at all in America, “William . . . William,” “Mary . . . Mary,” it happens all the time. But it’s very different over here. The statistical likelihood of one Khun Waranya being followed by a second Khun Waranya is astronomical, probably on the same order as two people on line for lottery tickets being issued the same randomized numbers by the computer.

Thai Names

The most striking thing to a new teacher in Thailand is that all of the children seem to have different names. Beyond a few popular examples, Thai names rarely repeat. In my year teaching high school, I had sixteen classes of about forty-five students each and most of them had a unique name. There will always be a Tannapong, and probably a Somchai, and for the girls usually a Sutarat, maybe a Tiwaporn, but other than a very few names that could be called common people seem to have their very own name, made up just for them.

Waranya is not one of the more common names.

Thai names mean something. It reminds me of the names of America Indians, at least the names for Indians in literature or in the movies. You know, “Running Bear” or something. Thai names are usually words, or combinations of words, from either Sanskrit or Pali (another several thousand year old South Asian language). Names like Chadarat (“headdress of the province”), Tiwaporn (“loves the day”), Janntiwa (“moon in daylight”), and Barinyaporn (“loves certificates of higher learning,” no kidding).

Incidentally, I think that I’ve only ever met one Chadarat in eight years. Of Tiwaporns, I’ve known a couple. Janntiwa is my favorite name of all time, only ever heard it once. Barinyaporn, of all things, is fairly common, I’ve heard it maybe six times.

Until about a hundred years ago, Thais only had one name, like most Indonesians to this day. I think that it was a point of pride to come up with something catchy and unique. Family names came about when the king at the time decreed that all Thai families should pick a family name. He also decreed that every single family in Thailand had to pick a name that was unique to them, no duplications, honest, somebody was keeping track as the names were registered. So between those two things you will almost never find two Thai people with identical first and family names. Note that it is not common to name children directly after a relative, as happens all the time in America. We have middle names to differentiate us, otherwise we become a “Junior.” If a Thai family names a son after a father, or a daughter after a father for that matter, they change the name a little, like Chadarat naming a daughter Chadaporn (“loves the headdress”).

Don’t laugh at the “porn” thing by the way, not polite. Sometimes it becomes a problem. One of the test-takers today had a name change document, it’s pretty common for Thais to change their names. I’m sure that it’s like America, the law figures sure, go ahead, as long as you have any reason at all and the new name is not offensive. This young woman had been christened “Kittiporn,” and I suppose when she got older and found out what it meant in English she just said “hell, no.” I’m sure the judge didn’t even ask her why she wanted to change it.

The Magnitude of the Coincidence

My university has 850,000 students, and that’s not a typo. Eight-hundred-and-fifty-thousand individual students, currently registered. They all have a unique student number. The print outs that we use for the tests have the students in numerical order, nothing is alphabetical, with assigned seat numbers. So you can see, the probability of two consecutive students having the same name is virtually nil. And that’s just the first names. (Two students with identical first and family names would be actually, totally impossible.)

But it happened today! The first names anyway.  The Waranya miracle! I just about swallowed my gum.

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