What is your name?

The very first day I came to Samoa, I was presented with a name tag with my new Samoan name, Sālai. Sarah is a popular name and I was never the only one in my class especially as I got older, so I’m no stranger to nicknames and have had plenty over the course of my life: Henry, Doodlebug, and Tater(tot) to name a few. So while some people struggled with being called something besides their given name, I didn’t because it was just another nickname.

I quickly learned though that I would hardly ever get called my full name by Samoans and I would get another nickname, Lai. People here shorten everyone’s names to the last syllable or part of the name. So I respond to Lai and my niece Maryeta responds to Yeta, and my brother Eneliko responds to Liko, and you get the point. It only makes it semi confusing at school when kids have the same last syllable. I have to be careful when Lucypeta and Elisapeta are in the same room.

I also have a different last name in Samoa. My last name is my father’s first name; my real father’s name is David and in Samoan it’s Tavita. So my full Samoan name is technically Sālai Tavita. So as long as kids have the same father then they share the same last name and their parents last names are their grandfathers names, (I have one student who’s first name is his dads name so his name is Latuivai Latuivai which must make yelling in their house confusing). Think of it like how in past centuries someone would be called Johnson as the son of John, or Tannersson. But if for some reason the father is not in the picture or unknown, which is rare here, then the kid will take the moms first name. However, I’ve only met a few Samoans who have their moms name as their last name.

You also keep the same last name here for life. If I got married in Samoa (deep breath mom don’t worry that’s not gonna happen), my name would still be Sālai Tavita; I would never take my husband’s last name.

You might wonder about the tradition of family names. On the dads side of my family in America, the first born sons take their fathers name as the middle name, so my American brother is Michael David. However, we all carry our last name down from generation to generation. In Samoa since family members may all have different fathers and different last names, they pass on family names as first names. So in my Samoan family, my mom’s husband was Malaeola and his first grandson was named Malaeola and then so was a cousin. It’s similar to my American moms family where we give Rose as the middle name for many of the girls since my grandma’s maiden name died out.

Besides more formal situations, Samoans are very casual with names. I was raised with southern and proper manners and to always use someone’s title, like Mrs., Ms., or Mr. I would also never refer to someone, especially an adult or my elders, by their first name unless I was given permission. And even then I would call them Ms. Laura or Ms. Juanita. That’s definitely not the case here and it took a while for me to get used to. Students call me and every other teacher by their first name, and children call their parents by their names as well. I remember being brave (or stupid) once when I was kid when I was mad and I called my mom by her first name (it’s what she did when she was mad at me; made perfect sense to me), and then I ran in terror cause I knew I had made a huge error. So when I heard the kids in my family call my Samoan mom by her name, I almost had a heart attack.

Sālai may have started as a nickname but it has become more than a nickname to me. It’s become part of me now just like my Samoan family, my students, and this entire experience.

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