Call me ignorant (you wouldn’t be the first) but am I the only one who finds the repetition of first names in many other countries baffling? In the U.S., you are unlikely to have more than three kids in a classroom, at the most, with the same name. Of course America has its standbys and fad names—in my town and generation they were like Kate, Nicole, Jessica, Sean, Mike, and Josh. In this study abroad group alone, we have so many Kates that we have resorted to referring to them by either last name or personal attributes, i.e. “tall Kate,” “engaged Kate,” etc. And from the sounds of it, about 50% of American children born between 2008 and 2011 will be named either Bella or Jacob—thank you, Stephanie Meyer.
Even so, there are hundreds of names in the average American public school, and any of them, weird as they might be, are unlikely to turn heads. The diversity of names in the U.S. naturally stems from it being a nation of immigrants, and also probably from the attitude towards identity that is more individual-centered than family-centered. Remember those aggressively diverse math word problems from nineties textbooks, where Carlos, Jim, and Ming-Li had a lemonade stand? Yeah, as was also my experience in Georgia and Ecuador, that doesn’t happen in Russia.
There is a compliment about names in Russian: “какое у Вас красивое имя, а главное – редкое,” which means “what a beautiful name you have, and most importantly–a rare one.” I find this odd because based on all of the Russians I have personally met over the last four months, one could reasonably conclude that there are literally only about twenty names to choose from. I imagine Russian parents in the maternity ward being presented with a Nazi-Germany-style list of “culturally appropriate names.” All joking aside, I’m reasonably sure every female born under the Khrushchev administration was required to be either Tatiana or Natasha.
Russian guys are invariably Alex/Lyosha, Dima, Vladimir, Dmitry, Sergei, Nikita, Maxim, Vasily, Andrei, Artem, Pavel, Yegor, Ivan, or Oleg. Girls seem to have a little more variety, but you still hear the same ten or so over and over: Tatiana/Tanya, Anastasia/Anya/Nastya, Yelena/Lena, Dasha, Olga, Natasha/Natalia, Irina, Katya, Masha, Yulia, and Svetlana.
This is sometimes easy (if you forget someone’s name you can just call out one of the top 3 in their gender and probably get it right) but also sometimes difficult to keep them all straight. It’s hard to match a face/personality with a name when dozens of others are also matched to that name, which is why I can’t for the life of me understand the purpose of giving your kid a common first name. If you called out a variant of “Alexander” at a Russian playground, most of the male children would look up, not just yours.
Eventually the moment comes, whether in a club, classroom, or banya, when you realize you’re in a room full of Russians you can’t match names to. When you’re dealing with a language barrier and all sorts of other issues, it can be impossible to remember names, and even more so when you meet so many people. I now find myself in the difficult position of having met a truly large number of people whose names I don’t remember.
This was even worse in Georgia (where Georgian name options are fewer and where American teenagers are a statistical rarity). Few Georgians would forget my name, because I was the American, and everyone in Tbilisi seemed to know my name whether I’d been formally acquainted with them or not. This game is not fair, and I am not looking forward to the first time next year on my Fulbright, when a person who thinks of me as her American sister realizes that I don’t know her name or why the hell I know her.