One of my biggest realizations from the GROW experience is the power of asking questions with the intention of remembering what people say in response. Their feelings, their frustrations, their truths. And to start it all off, their names. Growing up, I remember how annoying it would be when people would hear my name and reply with some version of “I can’t remember that.” With one phrase, they were telling me that I wasn’t significant enough to their lives to remember, or perhaps it would take too much effort to recount three syllables that represented my existence. Essentially, by not remembering, they were not caring. That thought always pops into my head when I hear a name that sounds difficult or makes me pause because I don’t know how to pronounce it. Coming from someone who’s heard “I can’t remember that” far too many times, putting some extra effort to respectfully ask for a person’s name to be repeated is worth it to show them that they matter to you.
I have a frustrating tendency to ask a lot of questions, especially of the seemingly dumb or obvious variety, just because sometimes relying on prior knowledge makes you miss an opportunity to learn something that you thought you knew from a new perspective. I spoke every one of my questions into existence during our three weeks in Mae Sot, Thailand with Social Action for Women, even when we probably knew the answer already, because it’s so much more meaningful to hear it from those who are most familiar with Burmese migrant communities along the border and the political and social climate in Burma.
In our interviews, we would start by asking the community member’s name and and would try to use it through our conversation. Even as we babbled in English to Aung Htun Lin, who helped us translate, I hoped that the person we were interviewing would catch those few familiar notes that was their name and know that we weren’t just here for the facts and stats, but that we came to Mae Sot to listen to their story.
Our GROW team was also the first to help teach classes for Social Action for Women’s SAW School and GED program. I had the opportunity to lead a supplemental English class for a group of wonderful 4th graders. The students were brilliant and goofy and so, so witty, and every day was a fun challenge to see how we could bridge the language barrier to get the most out of the lessons. I spent my weeks in the classroom teaching them about tenses and adverbs, and they taught me a colorful variety of Burmese words, not limited to “butterfly”, “poop”, “thief”, and one that I think translates to either “monkey” or “butt”. It took me awhile to learn all of their names but once I got it down, they would be excited when I used their name to tell them good job (and they would giggle back a “Good job, Teacher!”)
We had a moment of realization when we were trying to dig up photos to post on social media and we found one photo of a child at the Safe House laying in Aung Htun Lin’s lap. We were scrambling to remember his name; one of our members had played with the toddler the entire time and didn’t know it just because we hadn’t thought to ask. We came to the decision that we didn’t feel comfortable posting the photo without his name; if we did, what would differentiate us from the voluntourism initiatives that we bemoaned during our planning period, that we swore we wouldn’t be like? From that point on, we made it a priority to be more aware of the interactions we were having and consciously connecting with the people we met for the rest of the internship.
I’d venture to say most of us aren’t good at remembering names by nature; it takes effort and attention that usually seems better spent elsewhere. I would say my natural tendency is to let every name go in one ear and out the other. There are times when I realize I haven’t been paying attention to conversation and that I can’t recall the names of those I met, and it fills me with guilt that I didn’t respect the space and conversation we had shared enough to be mindful and present.
GROW gave me a chance to be conscious of those tendencies and to try my hardest to be respectful and grateful to the people we met for sharing their time and stories with us. We did a lot of good work to collect data and information to support our campaigns and grant-writing, but the most important part of our partnership is listening and learning, and that starts with speaking the names of community members and creating a platform for them to share their stories in their words. As we embark on our work in global health and social justice, we must remember the importance of remembering (or choosing not to remember) a name. I hope to work in education, where properly pronouncing and regularly using names can shape a student’s emotional growth in an academic space. In a classroom setting, it’s especially powerful to use a name: it cements your actions and qualities to who you are and allows you to craft your identity around the only letters that you choose to attach to your being. Saying a name right essentially means: I see you, you absolutely matter, and you’re doing great as you are and as you grow.