One of the small disappointments in my life is that I’m not the kind of person who gets nicknames, at least not the kind that are said to my face. For a short time, a few people called me “KimTwin,” a reference to an outboard motor. I was 20 and would have preferred a nickname that you would give to Anais Nin, mysterious and bohemian.
Although I am not a nickname kind of person, I’ve been called many things during my travels. Each gave me a little insight about another culture, and provided a small thrill. Here are the ones I remember.
Amrikiun. Just before the borders closed last year, I was in Morocco.The pandemic and the media coverage about it were exploding all over the world. As I walked through the souks in Fes, teenage boys pointed at me and yelled “Hey! Amrikiun!” Arabic for “American.” They said it with a smile, but their tone was scolding. because, you know, Amrikia’s president,
Senora. In California, strangers don’t call me anything since “Ma’m” is outdated. But in Mexico, all older women are “Senora.” I have heard it a thousand times, and it still makes me feel just a little dignified. I was also recently called “Hey Gringa” in a way that was not intended to make me feel dignified.
Mom — When I was working with refugees in Greece, the young men I got to know called me “mom.” These young men had real moms in Afghanistan and Iraq and Syria, and, at first, I thought those moms should be the only people they called “mom.” But I learned from one of them that “‘Mom’ is the nicest thing we can call you. It doesn’t change how we think about our moms at home. We love you in different ways.”
Sugar — Louisiana has its issues, but formality isn’t one of them. When I am there, I am called “Sugar” by every older woman who sells me a bag of groceries or a cup of coffee. So are all other women. After a few months of this, I found myself calling other women strangers “Sweetie.”
Miss Kim — In North Korea, almost everyone’s last name is “Kim,” so our North Korean tour guides were “Mr. Kim” and “Miss Kim.” For whatever reason, our North Korean tour guides weren’t comfortable calling me by my first name, so I was also “Miss Kim.” Confusing but in solidarity.
Keghstik — Although the Armenian side of my family is very affectionate, Armenians in Armenia were not very warm and fuzzy to me during the month I was there. The only thing an Armenian called me was “Keghtstik,” which means “dummy.” It’s true that, at the time, I was backing into the path of a moving bus, but still.
My Queen — Vendors in Cairo are known for their aggressive sales tactics toward tourists. Whenever I walked through the markets there, I was overwhelmed by friendly young men trying to sell me something. In one market, half dozen of them followed me through the alley waving small rugs and jewelry boxes, yelling “My queen! My queen!” I laughed, which had the intended effect of encouraging them.
Habibi — In Jordan, I rode a horse in the ruins of Petra. The owner of the horse was fun and friendly. Each time he reminded me that his horse loved tips, he called me “Habibi,” an Arabic term of endearment, because he knew that it’s almost impossible to disappoint someone who calls you that.
I love all of these terms of endearment, even the ones that weren’t meant to be endearing. But I think I have a long way to go before I reach the status of an American performer named Ron White who claims “They call me Tater Salad.”
What have they called you?