What’s in a Name: Tamar, Թամար, 他妈

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Special for the Armenian Weekly

I have always known that my father proudly named me. Though my mom wanted my name to be Ani (like practically every other Armenian girl in my generation), my father (thankfully) won the battle and got to pick my first and middle names: Tamar, after the legend of Akhtamar, and Anna, after his grandmother.

Statue of Akhtamar near Lake Sevan, Armenia (Photo: Aram Zakaryan)

The story of Akhtamar began many years ago, when a princess—Tamar—met a commoner. Princess Tamar lived on the island of Akhtamar, in Lake Van. According to the legend, Princess Tamar and the commoner met at a book market where the two of them discussed their love for poetry. The following week, the commoner gave the princess a love poem that he had written. Soon, the commoner and the princess began meeting secretly. Each night, the commoner would swim to the island, guided by a candle that the princess held for him. But once Tamar’s father, the king, discovered the truth about the two lovers, he grew angry and inconsolable. It was, after all, not proper for a princess to love a commoner. That night, the king found Tamar holding the candle to guide her lover. He blew out the candle, leaving the commoner helpless and stranded in the middle of the lake. The commoner’s final words were Ախ Թամար: Oh, Tamar.

People say that if you listen closely you can still hear his cries.

When I was in seventh grade, I hesitantly asked my history teacher, Mrs. Torado, if I could teach my classmates about the Armenian Genocide. Delighted, Mrs. Torado quickly arranged for an educational assembly that included the entire seventh grade class. Thankfully, a family friend—Greg—was the main presenter that day; after giving a five-minute overview of Armenia, my job was to click to advance the next slide when Greg said my name.

Although the presentation went exceptionally well (Thanks, Greg! Thanks, Mrs. Torado!), the following week was miserable for me: Each time Greg had asked me to click to the next slide, he said my name. Not Tamar as Americans pronounced it, but as Թամար. My American friends were equal parts intrigued and persistent in their efforts to mimic the Armenian pronunciation. For a week, I was tortured with American tongues insisting on ruining the sounds that formed my name.

“This is why we have American versions of our names,” my parents consoled me. “It’ll stop soon.”

During my first week in Taiwan, our two program coordinators asked to speak with me after training. Frantically, I mentally fumbled through excuses about why I hadn’t been paying attention that day and why I’d been writing during the workshop (I would never be writing letters to my friends while someone was giving a presentation! I was taking notes, of course!). As the rest of my cohort made dinner plans, I stood in an awkward huddle with Jaclyn and Athena.

“Well,” Jaclyn began, looking over at Athena. In response, Athena looked down at her feet, fully demonstrating the nonconfrontational nature of Taiwanese culture. “Names are very important,” Jaclyn said after an awkward pause. I slowly began to nod my head in agreement, ready to explain the origins of my name. But before I could respond, Jaclyn continued: “But names can mean different things in different cultures and to different people.” Again, I nodded, remembering the countless times I have been called Tamara (Hebrew for “palm tree”), or Tamera (as in Tia and Tamera Mowry, from Sister Sister), or Tomorrow (anyone who thinks they’re original when they sing Tomorrow, tomorrow, I’ll love you, tomorrow is kidding no one). Finally, after a few more awkward glances between Athena and Jaclyn, I impatiently blurted, “Yes, I know names are important, and I know language is different everywhere. What are you trying to tell me?”

Taking a deep breath and (finally) making eye contact with me, Jaclyn answered, “Well, your name in Chinese, Tamar… It doesn’t translate very well.”

“I think you need a new name,” Athena chimed in.

“What’s wrong with my name?” I asked, slightly defensive.


“Well, in Chinese, Tamar is… a bad word,” Athena fumbled.

“How bad?”

“It means… um… well, it means, f*** your mother.”

So, um, pretty bad.

In the weeks that followed, I had to train my ears to respond to a new name: Anna. (Stop calling me Teacher Anna! may have crossed my mind more than a few times this year.) Though the American pronunciation of my name once felt inauthentic, I missed my name, both the American and Armenian pronunciations. I (almost) missed the days after the presentation with Greg, when the line between the American and Armenian pronunciations was blurred. Even then, in the midst of my annoyance, my name was a symbol of my identity. A constant reminder that try as I might, my name would never allow me to forget who I was or where I came from.

There were many things I had to learn to live without this year in Taiwan: air conditioning at school, salads and uncooked vegetables, an oven, native English speakers, and Tamar.

Although I have learned how to navigate my life here—sitting near the best fans, eating just enough soggy cabbage and xin cai at lunch to avoid being rude, baking using a toaster, using the Google translate app, responding to Teacher Anna… the thing I am most looking forward to when I get home is the sound of my name.

Source: Armenian Weekly
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