An e-mail I got from a reader during the weekend contained the subject line, “Har’s story.”
She was referring to our two-part series on Har Sin, a deaf refugee from Burma who, at 24, is learning to communicate for the first time in his life.
In referring to him simply as Har, the reader made a small mistake. Understandably, she believed she was calling him by his first name.
But that is only half his name. Har Sin’s first and only name is Har Sin.
In Burma, family names are usually not passed on through a system of surnames based on the names of parents.
They are unique names given at birth, and they can evolve over time through various stages of life without any formally documented record. Birth dates, similarly, are rarely recorded. Burmese scholar Daw Mi Mi Khaing wrote about Burmese names in a 1958 article in The Atlantic:
Burmese names are often very confusing to foreign visitors because we do not necessarily hand down family surnames from generation to generation and Burmese wives seldom use the names of their husbands.
It’s also been confusing for the social workers who have tried to help Burmese refugees once they’ve arrived in the United States in recent years. Forms for social services like refugee assistance, disability assistance, and anything else, require first names and last names, and dates of birth.
So refugees from Burma have ended up splitting their names and choosing a birth date, because they have to. Many Burmese families in San Diego have multiple members whose recorded birthdays are Jan. 1.
In the United States, out of necessity, Har Sin has split his name. His legal first name is Har, his legal last name is Sin. But when he introduces himself to new friends using sign language, as he did in my story, he uses his full given name, H-a-r-S-i-n.