Genghis Khan, Prithvi Narayan Shah, and Changing Last Names

As a kid, I didn’t like my last name very much, but over the years, it’s grown on me. So I never thought I’d change it after I got married. Last summer I was pretty solid in my decision and didn’t do anything about it after we tied the knot.

When I got to Nepal, though, I realized how useful it was to have a Nepali last name, so I started using Tri’s last name when I introduced myself or had to fill out forms. Sometimes people wouldn’t realize that I was a foreigner when I used his last name, which was a plus. I remember one time when the nurse at a doctor’s office told me to write Tri’s last name on a form (instead of my own) so that I could be billed as a Nepali instead of a foreigner. The price difference was huge.

My first name is not Zoe (which is actually my middle name) although I’ve always been called Zoe by friends and family. My legal first name is much easier to pronounce in Nepali, and is even used in Nepal as a name. So if I really wanted my name to sound Nepali, I’d write my first name and Tri’s last name together.

I loved it. It felt like I had multiple identities and I could switch back and forth between my Nepali alias and my American one. In the US, however, things are more cut and dried and there are people keeping track of these things. Legally I still haven’t adopted Tri’s last name. It wasn’t easy for me to make it official while I was in Nepal, but now that we’re back, I need to get the ball rolling. Honestly, I’ve been kind of lazy about getting a new license and changing my social security card. I guess there’s been a lot going on, but I’m hesitant about it too. It feels final. In Nepal, I could pretty much use whatever name I wanted to, but here I’ve got to choose and stick to one.

When I feel uncertain about something or am trying to make a decision, looking back at what people used to do always helps me feel better. By no means am I a history buff (it was my least favorite subject in school), but sometimes figuring out how others have done it helps me understand how to move forward.

Tri has been reading a lot about Genghis Khan lately. He keeps stopping me every once in a while to read me an interesting fact or tidbit about the esteemed conqueror. We started talking about Genghis Khan’s name and what it meant. Apparently khan is a title used in Mongolian to mean “leader.” According to the books that Tri has been reading, the title spread to South Asia and was taken up by people there. Khan is now a pretty common last name found in Pakistan and India.

Prithvi Narayan Shah, the ruler who unified Nepal

While we were talking about name changes, Tri reminded me of the Shah rulers in Nepal. Prithvi Narayan Shah, the most famous Shah, conquered and unified a lot of what is present-day Nepal. He suggested that their last name may also have been an adopted one. It’s a name of Persian origin meaning “king.” I don’t mean to go barreling into the history of names in South Asia, but it’s comforting to remember that people change their names for a lot of reasons and that it’s not that uncommon.

But I don’t need to go all the way to South Asia to remind myself of that. A lot of women in my family changed their names after marriage. Other ancestors did as well when they came to the US. My father’s father’s parents came to the US from the Ukraine in the early 20th century and changed their name on the way in.  Another ancestor was born in Norway but didn’t end up in a great family situation. He was brought over to the US and adopted by a German man. My ancestor changed his name to his adopted father’s, which remains my mother’s maiden name today. Somehow, hearing about others’ name changes makes me feel okay about changing my own more permanently.

I feel strongly about my last name. It’s not the prettiest or daintiest of names, but it’s mine. Changing it around or adding onto it is okay, though. I want to take Tri’s name because it connects us and reflects my connection to his family, but I’ll keep my own too because it connects me to my maiti (parental home) and my past.

The next step is getting my butt in gear to make it official 🙂

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The Voyage of the Tomato

When I was studying abroad, I lived with a Sherpa family in the hilly region of Nepal for about a month. It was an amazing experience that introduced me to a side of Nepal very different from Kathmandu, the side I was used to. One of the best parts about living in the village was getting to know my host sister who was both patient and continually willing to teach me about her culture and life. Although her village felt very remote at the time, I eventually learned that it had surprising connections to my own home.

My second day in the village, I went to help my Sherpa sister in her fields. She gave me a scythe, and we started cutting millet. Her cutting was quick and seamless, mine clumsy and labored. But as the sun spread through the valley in the early morning, I gained a bit of confidence and settled into the meditative field work. Maybe I was too confident because within a few minutes, the scythe had slipped and it’s sharp blade dug deep into my finger.

I looked down in horror at the white gash turning to red, but my didi reassured me. “Don’t worry. Come over here, quick,” she said to me in Nepali as she motioned for me to follow her through the waist-high stalks of millet. Once we reached the hillside, she dug through the brush until she had found a thin, red vine with leaves flanking both sides. She stripped the leaves off in one sweep, rolled them between her hands, and squeezed the green juice into the gash on my finger.

I had never used leaves to heal a cut before, so that night I looked at the wound skeptically. The next morning, however, the broken skin had almost completely closed.

As I continued to live with my host sister for that rest of that month, I learned about her use of all sorts of plants for religious purposes, as medicine, and, of course, for food.

She taught me about what they grow during the different seasons and showed me the plants they burn as incense. While I was helping out in the fields, she and the other women would point out things that grew wild but were edible, like nettle (sisnu) and a tiny, almost neon-orange, round fruit…

Fast forward about eight months: I was in North Carolina at the beach, and we went kayaking to one of the small islands off the coast. As we were trudging along the island, scanning the trees for wild horses, I looked down at the dry, sandy ground. There, nestled in it’s green, leafy shell was that little orange fruit, the same type that I had seen in my didi‘s village the year before. I picked up the nearly trampled specimen and inspected it carefully in disbelief. Both the US and Nepal grow some of the same well-known fruit (bananas, apples, oranges, etc.), but it seemed unbelievable to me to find this obscure berry on both the islands of North Carolina and in a remote village in the Himalayas.

After a quick search on the Internet, I found out that the plant is called a ground cherry, a relative of the tomato. I also learned that the tomato and related plants, which are native to the Western Hemisphere, didn’t reach Europe and Asia until explorers brought them over. The ground cherry couldn’t have been part of Nepal’s landscape for more than a few hundred years.

As I learned about the voyage of the tomato and its relatives from the new world to the old, I wondered in amazement at how intricately connected our world is. I always thought of globalization as a modern thing, something of the 20th century. Plane travel and increased migration opportunities may have sped up the process, but its been happening for much longer than the last hundred years.

Nepal used to seem like such a far away place. The village seemed especially far with no internet access and my allotted one-call-per-week back to the US. But there’s been trade and connection between the East and the West for a long time. The migration of the ground cherry and tomato from its origins in the Americas to the rest of the world may seem like a small blip in the history of things, but it’s a reminder that people have been traveling, sharing ideas, crops, and food probably for as long as we’ve been around.

It also raises a whole bunch of questions. Tomatoes are a part of the Nepali cuisine, but they’re not necessarily a main feature. Consider the chili pepper, though, which is another imported plant and an integral part of the Nepali and South Asian diet. What did South Asians eat for spice before chili peppers? Was spicy food as big a part of Nepali cuisine before they used the chili pepper in their cooking? And where did all of the Nepali names for these foods come from? golbedha (tomato), aloo (potato), khorsani (hot pepper). Are they loan words? Did they arise within the Nepali community?

Indo-European Roots

When I started this blog, I honestly thought I would be writing more about language. I was a linguistics major in college and love thinking about and trying to understand the complexities of language. So in honor of my major, I thought I would write a post about Nepali…

Nepali is part of the Indo-European language family, a big family that includes many of the languages spoken in Europe, across Afghanistan and Iran, and into parts of the India subcontinent. All of these languages from English to to Farsi to Hindi are descended from one language, what linguists call “Proto-Indo-European.” Before I started learning Nepali, although I knew that Nepali and English are distantly related, it never really meant much to me.

After I started learning Nepali, I began to see a lot of words that look very similar to English words, and this distant relationship between Nepali and English became more tangible and real to me. I learned words like naam, which means “name” and daant, which means “tooth” in English but sounds very similar to the French word for tooth, “dent,” and is related to the English word “dental.” I was talking to my grandfather about Nepali last year, and it came up that the word for “well” (as in “are you well?”) is sanchai or sancho in Nepali. He thought this might share a root with the word “sane” in English, which also in one sense means “well.” A few more of these cognates include:

manche, which means “man” or “person”

naya, which means “new”

musa, which means “mouse”

Even the word “go” in English is related to the word for “go” in Nepali. The verb for “to go” is jannu, but in the past tense, it is gae (first person, past tense), which does look very similar to “go.”

Although similar sounding words often share a root, it is not always so. To check these words that I think may be related, I use this Etymological dictionary. If you type in the English word, then it will give you its roots in older languages like Old English, Latin, and Proto-Indo-European (PIE). You may also find a note that gives the equivalent word in Sanskrit (abbreviated as Skt.), from which Nepali is descended. If the English word is related to the Sanskrit word, and the English word sounds similar to the Nepali word, then I can be pretty sure the English and Nepali words share a common root.

For one of the seminars I took during senior year of college, I had to read a book called Dying Words: Endangered Languages and What They Have to Tell Us by Nicholas Evans. It’s a great read that gives a lot of fascinating facts about a lot of different languages. As I was flipping through the book, I found this quote by the author about the Nepali word lakh,

‎Hindi and other Indian languages have a unit ‘lakh,’ meaning 100,000. (The Sanskrit word laksa, from which ‘lakh’ derives, comes from the same root as the German word ‘lachs’ “salmon” and its Yiddish and now English counterpart ‘lox’; the extension to 100,000 was based on a metaphor of huge numbers of swarming salmon.

Doesn’t that just blow you away? I always thought of “lox” as a distinctly European word, but to find out that it’s origin goes beyond Europe is amazing.

I’m not sure why these remnants of that ancient, common language are so fascinating to me. I guess they remind me that it’s very likely Tri and I come from the same stock of people. We’ve had quite a few friends and family tell us that we look alike, so maybe we even share a distant ancestor 🙂

If you’re interested in this kind of thing, another fun thing to do is to check out the Romani language, spoken by the Romani people in Europe. Many believe that the Romani people originated in South Asia, and a look at their language supports that possibility.

Here’s a list of Romani phrases.

Look at the third one down, amaro baro them, meaning “our big land” or “our ancestral land.” The amaro looks an awful lot like the Nepali word hamro, meaning “our,” and the baro looks a lot like the Nepali word bado and Hindi word bada, which both mean “big.” Although the Romani people’s migration out of South Asia began over a thousand years ago, they were able to maintain their language.

For more examples from the Romani language, check out this online dictionary.