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What's in a Name

Michael and friends
A Rich Cultural Heritage

By Michael Javier

When we make new acquaintances, our name is certainly the next big thing to be shared after an exchange of warm greetings. Some would even go as far as telling us the meaning of their names. That’s when our curiosity about the importance of naming a child in a particular culture is aroused.

For some, the name given to a child is planned by their parents or someone close to them even before the baby is born, a name that somehow indicates the gender of the baby. Some will take the name of a famous celebrity, or a popular sports player, while others will pick a Biblical name for their baby. In some cultures, the name given to a baby upon birth and registered as such on their birth certificate will also become their baptismal name.

Foggy stream in Hkakabo razi National park, Kachin state, MyanmarIn the Kachin State of Myanmar, they have their own way of giving names to their children. They do not name them after famous people.

When I arrived here in the Kachin State, they asked me if I already had a Kachin name. I wondered if it was necessary for me to have one.

The ordinal birth of the child takes precedence, i.e. first child, second child, etc. Besides that, a second name that somehow means “good” or “lucky” is added, with the belief and hope that this will help the child become a better person someday.

A ritual called “Ja Htawng Htu” (meaning, pounding of ginger) is traditionally done for the naming of a newly-born child. Usually, they prepare wild ginger (not an ordinary one), salt, and dried fish or meat. Putting them all together into a small mortar, they then pound them. While pounding, the catechist would mention the name of the child, as given by the parents, and would say his/her prayers and wishes for the child and for the family. They usually invite some friends to witness the ritual. For the Catholics, the child will be given a baptismal name or a Christian name upon baptism.

When I arrived here in the Kachin State, they asked me if I already had a Kachin name. I wondered if it was necessary for me to have one. However, I learned that they like to adopt a foreigner as a member of their own family by giving him or her a Kachin name. They usually do the “Ja Htawng Htu” as a way of welcoming a stranger in order to make him or her feel at home with the foster family. With an open heart, we did the ritual, and I was welcomed as a new member of the Sabaw household. It was an honor to be named and called “Sabaw Tang San”: Sabaw being the last name of the family, Tang meaning the fifth son, and San meaning pure or clean. The Kachins have such a rich cultural heritage.

Columban lay missionary Michael Javier lives and works in Myanmar.