Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wikipedia Set Me Straight

In 1992, I was invited to present a paper at Vietnam's 1st Women's Conference in Hanoi. ( My topic--no surprise--was how culture and the stories each culture tells shape attitudes towards women. ) It was an interesting weekend, not so much for what we accomplished as for the friendships we made with women from all over the world.

One particular woman I met was an energetic and kind young Vietnamese named Miss Ha. We had such fun talking with one another and trading stories, that when she offered to guide me to a beautiful part of the country--Halong Bay--I wrapped the rest of my time in the country around this plan. She said she would have to take a day off work, but not to worry. Just to go ahead by myself. She and her husband would meet me in a certain hotel lobby at 2pm.

So off I went in a battered old taxi. All I had was the name of the hotel and her name: Miss Ha. I reasoned that there couldn't be too many hotels by the same name in a small village and certainly nobody else by the strange name of Miss Ha.

After riding on a dusty road for several hours, I arrived in this amazing place where black rocks jutted out of the emerald green Halong Bay. There were different names for the rocks and stories behind each of those. I was mesmerized. I needed to find Miss Ha and her husband so we could go out in a small wooden boat and explore.

I went to the designated location, an old colonial style hotel with a wide open-air lobby and a lazy ceiling fan stirring up a breeze. A man and two women were chatting behind the counter, laughing. Miss Ha wasn't there. I walked out to the back where there was a garden. But Miss Ha wasn't there either. I checked my watch. It was 2pm.

"Can I help you?" the man behind the counter asked.

"Yes, " I said. "I'm looking for Miss Ha."

"Which Miss Ha?"

"I don't know," I said. "She's with a man, her husband."

They exchanged looks.

"Miss Ha is a very common name in our country," the man explained.

Despite my predicament, I had to laugh. Just because I'd never heard the name, I'd assumed it was rare. Here it turned out that it was the equivalent of Smith or Jones. (Or so I thought)

As luck was on my side, Miss "Jones" came running up the path with her husband just as I was leaving. They'd been caught in traffic. "What is your full name?" I asked before we went further. "Nguyen Thanh Ha," she said. Great. Now I knew (or thought I did.) We had a wonderful time together wandering around the Bay, and have been corresponding ever since.

Last week, though, I was working on a Vietnamese fairytale that she told me, and I needed some common Vietnamese names to work with. I went to Wikipedia. Turns out --as I had learned so many years ago--that Ha is a very common name. But it's not a common last name. It's a given name. So when I went walking into the lobby, I'd been asking for Jane.

All these years, my friend probably assumed I knew I was addressing her letters as Miss Jane. I always assumed that she had taught me her name from given name to surname as we do. It took Wikipedia to set me straight.

1 comment:

beckylevine said...

Yay for wikipedia. What did we ever do without it?

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