Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Blog #24: Playing the Name Game

I’m usually quite good at learning people’s names. I actually find it incredibly uncomfortable not knowing someone’s name when I am supposed to or when I have had ample time to commit it to memory. I think most teachers would agree that learning students’ names can be a challenge at the best of times. Usually a teacher will have, on average, eighty or ninety students each year. Add that to the number of students taught in previous years who are still students at the school and it’s surprising that there is any space left in a teacher’s brain for the knowledge that they hope to share with those students.

In my previous teaching experience it took me about a week to remember the majority of my students’ names (I will not claim all of them), and even then it required that I study the class seating plans meticulously. But once I learned their names I could immediately see the benefit of my diligent studying. I could call on any student to answer a question in class, I could ask where someone was if they were absent, I could simply say “hi” to my students when I passed them in the halls. Knowing a students name is an important part of establishing a relationship with them and earning their trust. It also makes them feel like their teacher actually cares about them.

Well, what was a difficult task in Toronto is near impossible in Bhutan. Yes, the class sizes are definitely a factor contributing to my difficulty in learning my students‘ names, but it is their Bhutanese names that make this task particularly confusing. Most Bhutanese people have a first and second name, but neither is their family name. Family names do not exist here. There is nothing indicating one’s family lineage or heritage; only a first name and a second name. So I have to learn two names for each student. No big deal, right? Wrong. The problem is that there are really only a dozen or so common names in circulation among Bhutanese people, both male and female. The result is a confusing mishmash of these names, which leave teachers with their heads spinning. I assure you that I am not the only one who feels this way. Even the Bhutanese teachers find it difficult to get straight.

You want an example? Okay, here is a list of class XI Sci A students’ names:

Now you tell me how I’m supposed to remember who Dorji Tshering is when he sits near Tshering Wangchuk. And how do I remember who Tshering Wangchuk is when he sits in front of Ugyen Wangchuk? And who the heck is Ugyen Tenzin?? Is he the guy who sits in the front row or is that Tshewang Tenzin?!? Or am I thinking of Jigme Tshewang?!?!?

Sadly, I still don’t have the answers. I have it a little easier with my class IXs because there are only 18 of them, and because I have recently become their class teacher (which means a lot more work for me, but also that I am responsible for this class and spend much more time with them). But in my other classes I have no choice but to resort to pointing and saying, “You. Speak.” Their refusal to speak also contributes to the challenge of learning their names. I have learned the names of my smartest students and the ones who participate the most, but those who choose to sit silently remain anonymous. Much of the time these are the students who would really benefit from a little push here and there, but it is difficult to push them when I don’t know who they are or what kind of help they need. This probably makes me sound like a horrible teacher, but I have come to accept that this is just the way it works here. It goes against everything we believe in at home, where one student’s failure is a failure of the whole system, but here many students are basically expected to fail.

Now, one last test. Tell me, which of the above students’ names belong to girls and which belong to boys? …Wrong. No, seriously, you were wrong, I guarantee it. Who said that Thinley is a girl’s name? Well that depends. Are you talking about Thinley Dema or Thinley Dorji? The former is a girl’s name, the latter belongs to a boy. Now what about Karma? Girl or boy? Well, Karma Wangchuk is a boy, but Karma Yangzom is a girl. Confused yet? One last example. The most common name in class XI Sci A, Jigme: boy or girl? Again, it belongs to both. So tell me, which Jigmes are boys and which are girls? The answer: Jigme Tshewang and Jigme Gyeltshen are boys, Jigme Chhoeden and Jigme Zangmo are girls.

The whole name game is extremely complicated, but UK did break it down for me and give me some helpful tips, which I will share with you. A person’s second name is what determines their gender. So it doesn’t really matter if a student’s first name is Tshering; what matters is whether it’s Tshering Phuntsho or Tshering Zangmo. The trick in determining whether the second name is male or female is the sound. Soft sounds are generally female names and hard sounds are generally male. So is Tshering Zangmo male or female? …If you said female you’re catching on. Okay, just to see if you really understand your Bhutanese names I will list a few more and you can take your guesses (I won’t answer now, but if you want to play along, post your answers as a comment and I will tell you if your right or wrong). Okay, here we go…

If the thought of it makes you a little queasy, welcome to my world. It ain’t easy being me, but slowly I’m learning.


  1. Nick,
    Thanks for posting some hints your in blog. Here's my best guess:
    M: Pema Dorji, Tashi Norbu, Yeshi Wangchuk, Sangay Penjor, Sonam Zangpo
    F: Pema Seldon, Sonam Dema, Sonam Wangmo, Tashi Dema, Dorji Wangmo

  2. whew! i vote for re-usable name tags or nameplates on each desk. had those in my first and second grade classroom in the states, even. take care!

  3. Nick,

    This blog is terrific and has been a great introduction to what teaching and living in Bhutan may be like. Being a prospective 2011 teacher, I was wondering what supports you might have from the school community? You can hit me up at carsonkoller@gmail.com to avoid comment spam if you wish.

    I wish you all the best and look forward to future posts!