Becoming Bai Dtong

Zari Havercome, 130 YinD

Hi peeps, my name is Zari (phonetically sounds like Zarry) and I am a Peace Corps Volunteer in Group 130. Some of my peers have recently shared their experiences with our Pre-Service Training (PST) and I have had very similar, if not identical, experiences as them. However, my PST experience in Thailand has been very different from my peers in one particular way. I have become somewhat of a . . . celebrity, if I do say so myself.

Here is a little bit of my back story:

  • Graduated from Brandeis University with a bachelor degree in Health Policy and in International and Global Studies
  • Have worked and/or volunteered in New York, Massachusetts, Honduras, Italy, Haiti, Australia and now Thailand (usually health or education related)
  • Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York

Now that you know a little bit about me, let’s get back to my solid “B-List Celebrity” status in the social circles of Don Chedi, Suphanburi, Thailand.

In the country of Thailand, everyone is given a nickname. There is a lot of pride and meaning into the way one is given their birth name, which has to do a lot with the time, day of the week, and many other factors. However, one’s nickname is probably the name that most people would call you by.

Personally, I have had a hard time with nicknames because my name is so short that nicknames were usually longer than just saying my name. I also have had an issue with getting people to pronounce my name the way it was meant to be pronounced; hence my intro.

All that being said, along with some knowledge that the Thai alphabet does not have a letter “Z,” I knew that my name would not be what it was meant to be here, and I was emotionally prepared to handle that.

Fast forward, about 5 days, when I turned the ripe age of 24 on January 10th, only a few days into our training. That was the day we had the first of many language stations. It was extremely emotional for many reasons:

  • I was fulfilling a dream of joining Peace Corps
  • I was in Thailand, a place I have dreamt of visiting
  • I was away from friends and family, etc

But the most emotional moment was when I was sitting in the Alphabet station, with my paper crown and sash that the staff made for me, and found a Thai consonant that would give me the “Z” sound for my name.

Imagine going through a learning exercise that everyone could more or less participate in, like writing your name, and feeling like you can’t join. The moment I found that letter, which is more of a hard “S” sound, and wrote my name in Thai was great. I then asked the aa-jaan (teacher) to read it and she said my name more clearly than any random English speaker I have ever met. If anyone can relate to the struggles of having people say your name right, you would understand why I bawled, instantaneously.

I knew that I was supposed to be here, I was revitalized! I felt like Thailand made space just for me. Later, after a cultural session during PST when our aa-jaans (teachers) told us that we could go to our home stay and ask our families for a nickname. I did, and I got a nickname I love.

My chuulen (nickname) is Bai Dtong. My family gave me that name because I have a niece and her nickname is Bai Toey. Her name is the word for small banana leaves. My name is the word for the full grown banana leaves. I am so very proud of my nickname because long, long ago when Thai people were laying the foundations of their nation, they did not have a lot of things that they have now, like… plates. The large banana leaves were a multi-purpose resource that allowed them to collect some of their most sacred things like food and water. Banana leaves are used to weave beautiful baskets and can also carry offerings and other important things down rivers during cherished holidays like Loi Krathong.

Moral of the story is I am a big freaking deal to have been awarded this nickname. Things became even more profound when I realized that another nickname I was given in Honduras is similar to Bai Dtong. In Buena Vista, Honduras, I was known as Banana! Would you believe it. Years later, across oceans, nations, and languages I have come back to this name.

In doing so, I have completely owned it. As I integrate into my area, with all the pride I can muster, I introduce myself like this: “Saa wat dii ka, Di chaan chuu Zari dtee chuulen Bai Dtong ka. Di chaan bpen kon Thai ka.” That translates to: “Greetings, my name is Zari but my nickname is Bai Dtong (Banana Leaf). I am a Thai person.” After saying this to any and everyone I met, it became my catch phrase.

Now, I walk or bike around my city and can hear women, children, and men yell “Bai Dtong” and I feel loved. When I pass in the market, vendors ask me over to come chat, and introduce me to their customers. When I go out to eat, and my students see me, they tell their families that “Bai Dtong is over there, say hi!” And when I am getting ready to bike on a road that might have street dogs, I usually hear a loud “Bai Dtong” from a neighbor that is telling me to be careful.

My PST experience has challenged me in similar ways that my peers have mentioned that it has challenged them. I have those sweaty, awkward, itchy, rice-filled, confusing experiences as well. But the one thing that I do have that is different is my status. I am now a Thai person. So Thai, in fact, that I scored Intermediate High on my language proficiency, and my permanent site placement is in the same province I have already made these strong relationships.

It seems that I have been a big hit here, and it looks like Peace Corps and the province of Suphanburi, both agree.

Becoming Bai Dtong_Zari


5 replies »

  1. Crazy to think how the world works in mysterious ways. Bai Dtong, Banana, Zari…all so fitting and beautiful.


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