Last updated on October 13, 2016
Growing up in the United States, I took for granted the fact that I have a common name. While it wasn’t the Jessicas or Jennifers of my many, many classmates, the name Shannon is a known name. It’s recognizable. Although you might not know a Shannon personally, you’ve heard it before. There was never a stumbling as my name was called on the first day of school; in fact, once my full name was said (Shannon O’Donnell), I most often got a chuckling question: “You’re not Irish, are you?”
I’m not, technically. I am of 100% Irish descent, but I am 100% born and raised American. And so, it surprised me to learn that Shannon is not only uncommon, but the “sh” sound itself is not universal to all languages. In these years of travel (eight and counting), I have now gone by many names. My name has shifted and morphed in tune with the linguistic and cultural nuances of each country. And like all the new friends I’ve met along the way, each time I hear a new version of my name it brings a smile to my face.
It all started when I stepped off of the plane in Australia back in 2008, when my round the world travels were first starting. I picked Australia as the first spot on my RTW trip because it was an affordable flight from Los Angeles, and also because they speak English. This would be my first solo trip, I figured there couldn’t be much new/confusing/culturally different in Oz. I was wrong. Aussie’s speak their own brand of English, and after two months backpacking Australia, I learned that they love assigning nicknames to most everything, including people. The nickname closest to Shannon is actually the common nickname for Sharon — Shazza. I hear that it’s also a snarky when used outside of friendship. Not being Aussie, I’m not sure if they meant it meanly most of the time, but my one Aussie friend lives in Melbourne — he meant it in good faith. I’ve never had a nickname before, (besides the pet names my mum calls me), and so this was a fun. That said, I’m also really glad no one calls me that anymore. :)
But the new names I acquired during my years traveling Asia, those are much dearer to my heart, mostly because they speak to the vast differences in languages and linguistic patterns across peoples on this planet.
In Laos and Cambodia, each time I introduced myself to a new person, they merely stared and blinked at the word coming off of my lips. Most people wouldn’t even attempt to repeat it back to me. Some would enthusiastically repeat my name with emphatic nods and smiles while seeking confirmation that they had pronounced it correctly.
Conversations went as follows:
Hi, I’m Shannon!
Ah, Channon, hi! It’s Channon, right?
No, it’s Shannon actually, shhhhhhhh-annon.
Hmm. Um. Well, actually it’s an “Shhh” sound at the beginning. Shhhhannon.
This would last several minutes before I was forced to abandon all hope and just smile, nod, and ignore. Which is, I am sure, what they do when I try to add tonal nuances to their own names. Our languages differ so profoundly that entire sound patterns are left out. In college, I briefly registered my major as Linguistics. This field of study fascinates me. Naturally, this field delves far beyond the small, fun differences I find on my travels. To this day, however, I love the minute and the broad related to this field.
The thing I find most fun, is that I didn’t anticipate that it would be these smaller moments that I learned to love about travel. Discovering that some languages lack a “sh” sound. Others elongate the “o” at the end of my name. In Jordan, my name was Shan-nooooon. To this day, I can hear the lilt of my tour guide’s voice as he called me back to the car as we toured.
And sometimes the name thing went even beyond lack of pronunciation. I traveled with my cousin Helen when I traveled across India. She was lucky. A major Bollywood star from the eighties shares her name, and each time she said her name it delighted the locals we met. They shared shared this little tidbit of knowledge nearly every time she introduced herself. Even more, one woman launched into a long story about how Bollywood Helen had a mean shimmy — the locals never did convince my cousin to if she had an equally rockin’ skill.
In one town in India we took awful henna lessons from a woman named, Deepa. She wasn’t a skilled teacher, but she would enthusiastically sing-song my name as a greeting when I arrived at her house. The only problem — it wasn’t my name. What was funny about Deepa was that she could say my name properly with prompting and repetition, but then she would immediately revert back to an echoing “SHELLEN!” by the next day.
It was hard to correct her after awhile because she said it with such conviction — she really thought she had it down!
The last of the notable name butcherings was at the hands of Amrit, the young man who ran our guesthouse in Pharping, Nepal, which is where I lived for a month while I volunteered at a monastery. On our first encounter with Amrit, he was so stumped by my name that he wouldn’t attempt to repeat it. Instead, he decided that my cousin Helen’s name was sufficient for the both of us.
For several days, he would refer to me as Helen, even though he knew that wasn’t my name. My cousin and I were the “Helen” unit. One joint name to reference the two of us. Fortunately, it didn’t take him long to hear the other girls say my name enough to confidently begin deferring all issues and problems at the guesthouse to… wait for it…
I giggle with nostalgia as I write this when I think of my greeting each morning,”Good morning, Ssannon.”
If I approached him with a question, he would respond, “Yes, Ssannon?!”
If breakfast was late,”Just two more minutes, OK Ssannon?”
If we were late returning home at night (we rocked the boat with our curd runs at 8:30 pm), I would hear his question float down the dark hallway, “Is that you Ssannon?”
For most of my life, the only person able to use nicknames and pet names was my mother, but now, I rather like these versions of my name. Each one tells a new story. I have these stories from the indigenous women of the Oaxaca Valley, from Myanmar, to Guatemala, and to all of the places in between. Each one carries with it the an echo of that time and place from my travels and calls to mind the slideshow of faces who have moved in and out of my life over these past years of travel.