Around the World in 80 Heys

Anais Nin

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,

He called me “Amrikiun”

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 In California, strangers don’t call me anything since “Ma’m” is outdated.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.”

Two of them called me “mom”

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.

She called me “Keghtstik

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.

He called me “Habibi”

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?

19 comments

  1. I simply love this post. It brought back some sweet memories for me. But before answering your question I must first disagree with the premise of the piece.

    Kimmie. That’s your nickname for me and other members of your family. Kimmie. Plus, you have such a great first name you really don’t need a nickname!

    I have had many nicknames, but my all time favorite was given to me when I was around 7 or 8 by the gang of ten kids I hung out with during my days of growing up in The Amalgamated Apartments near Van Courtland Park in The Bronx. I am still close to these BFF’s for life.

    Our 1950’s group of grubby little urchins grew up under the watchful eyes of a hundred neighborhood “Moms” who kept us in line and acted something like a human telegraph system passing messages from someone’s mom down to the next mom and then to the next mom to its ultimate recipient kid to let them know their Mom wanted them to come home or bring back a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread when they came home. If you ever did anything wrong in the school playground, word of it got back to your mom before you did. Oy vey!!!

    We all had nicknames. Mine was a twisted rendition of a short-lived TV cartoon series hero whose real name I have long forgotten. That nickname will forever be with me. Hector McBeanBag. Yup. And it stuck to me like glue throughout grade school and didn’t disappear from common usage until we moved out of the Bronx to the “burbs when I was 12. When I speak to these “kids” now they often call me Hector for short.

    But, the best nickname of all time was for my good and great friend Albi Gorn. This nickname was built up over a period of several weeks as each of us added a phrase. Albi was called…. wait for it… AlbiMickeyMichaelGornagiggleFritzenheimerBonesbiggerdiggerBotchababyofboogoos Gorn.

    Yup. 70 years later it rolls off my tongue as easily as Kim or Vic.

  2. What a great post! I just love it! My brother couldn’t pronounce my name, so I was always called Margie, which I guess, technically, is a nickname. I think he called you habiba, or habibti (the female version of habibi), but nevertheless that’s sweet 🙂

  3. In Caribbean Panama they may call you Mami (pronounced kind of like: mommy) someday. It’s an honorific for women of a certain age. At first I was annoyed (feeling too young at 67 for this title) but grew to consider it a sign that I had become part of the neighborhood.

  4. What a fun post, Kimmie! (I have also heard people call you that!) I haven’t had many nicknames, either, but this brought back memories of my landlady/housemate in Barcelona who always called me Queen as well, “¡Adiós, Reina!” And my Brazilian friend’s mom in Rio who couldn’t pronounce Wendy called me “Wedgie.”

  5. I’ve been “Jules” and “Jools” and “Jojo,” but maybe the most endearing was when I was in residency in Phoenix, AZ, where the cafeteria ladies called me (and all the female employees) “m’ija”

    1. I love “mija” — one of the admins in my workplace called me that. I knew she never would have called one of my male colleagues by that name (too familiar), but I was flattered.

  6. Oh! Also, when my Tamil-speaking friends’ kids were little, they called me Julie-mami. Now that they’re older, they use the English “Aunt Julie,” and it’s just not the same.

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