Names and Faces


Is it more important to remember a person’s name, or their face? Is it better to recognize a person and admit that you have forgotten what was likely one of the first things they told you about themselves, or not recognize a person but agree that you know someone by that same name and that its entirely possible that this individual claiming to be them is in fact them? I’m not entirely sure one is preferable. Now granted there are times when name and face bond seamlessly in my mind, but more often then not its the face that sticks. I’m terrible with names, and sadly my time in Thailand has done little to improve this quality.

Back in the States there were more instances than I would care to admit of me logging someone in my contacts as “So and so’s friend” or “Mustache Guy”, but in Thailand I met a whole village’s worth of people in a matter of a few weeks and my Thai language skills were very much in their infancy. This led to the formation of an entire mental database of nameless faces including students, fellow teachers, village elders, government workers, neighbors, etc. I could pick these people out of a crowd, but I couldn’t tell you their first name. I knew where they lived, I knew their children were in my 2nd grade class, I knew they were rubber farmers or owned the local noodle shop, but I had no clue what their name was. And though I have gradually learned more and more names, primarily those of my students (which I know sounds terrible, that a teacher might not know their own students names…but I have 300+ students and I met them all in the span of three days, and their names are in Thai so give me a break) but the vast majority of people I see everyday, in my memory, register as faces.

Now if there is any redemption in this admittance it’s that I know A LOT of faces. I know my student’s parents, I know my students obviously, I know my neighbors, I know the guy who I’m pretty sure is on drugs and occasionally screams in the road when it starts raining, that database is stacked. The village I live in is tiny, and so I see the same faces every day. Just like a baby learns to speak by being immersed in the language of their caretakers, I have learned the faces of the locals with little conscious effort. I’ll pass someone when I’m out running and know ‘oh there’s Kwan’s mother’ or ‘there goes Fa and her family’. And its a weird thing to know people only by their faces and by the experiences you’ve shared with them. It’s like returning to some sort of ‘dawn of mankind’ era of socializing and relationship building.

I have been thinking about names and faces a lot over the past two weeks. What spurred this course of thought was an unimaginable tragedy. One of my student’s mother’s was murdered. When I learned about this my brain immediately began combing through my database for this woman’s face. I knew it, I remembered her. I remembered her picking her daughter and a few other students up from school, and us exchanging greetings. A few other shards of recollection, a passing wave from her motorbike perhaps, dotted my fragmented memories of this woman. But this woman had been someone else’s entire world. My student knew her inside and out, she and her mother had lived alone together and the absence and fear this girl must now be facing was incomprehensible. Someone who had meant everything to someone, was to me only a passing face. This meant that every face, every nameless grouping of eyes and nose and teeth, had the potential to be everything to someone else. I thought about the people in my life whose names and faces were merely the surface of all I knew about them and how I would feel if suddenly that person ceased to exist. I felt sick, I felt angry. Who had the right to strip someone of their world? What reason could possibly exist to justify taking from someone that which they know so intimately? What monster could knowingly leave a child so alone? These questions clawed at me until, at the end of the school day, I thought of something else. Who among the nameless faces, the ones I see even in my sleep, was the monster?

I haven’t been back to site in about a week. As I write this I’m sitting stranded in an internet cafe in the midst of a pretty heavy rainstorm. I don’t know if they have since caught the party responsible for the murder of my student’s mother. But I can’t stop thinking about the moment when I found out who it was because I know in that moment what will happen. My brain will comb through its database, pick out the face, and remind me of the times I passed this person on the road, or shook their hand, or smiled at them. The more I think about this the more I’m starting to think maybe names and faces aren’t important at all.

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