Exchanging Names – Michigan Quarterly Review
Image of a few sharpies and name cards on a chestnut brown desk.

Exchanging Names

The first thing I became aware of, as I stood blinking in the five-a.m. brightness of Taoyuan International Airport, was my own name staring back at me.

It gleamed in thick black letters on a white poster board, but the poster wasn’t the strange part. The strange part was the individual holding it up. His body was entirely covered by what looked like a bright blue hazmat suit—combined with his blue medical mask and plastic face shield, the whole ensemble made him look like he was about to enter a nuclear power plant instead of greeting a college student at an airport.

I’d landed in Taiwan in the summer of 2022, when COVID cases on the island had reached an all-time high and the only non-Taiwanese residents permitted to enter were businesspeople, diplomats, people traveling for emergency or humanitarian reasons, and students studying Mandarin (guess which one I was). I recognized the azure-clad figure before me as the official sent by the Ministry of Education to guide me through the maze of COVID-related arrival procedures that stood between me and the airport exit. In other words: my savior.

Though all I could see of him was the top third of his face, I somehow registered that this visible sliver of my Virgil through the inferno looked just like Brett from the YouTube channel TwoSet Violin. From then on, I referred to him in my head as Brett. Brett directed me in cautious English until he realized I could speak Chinese. We made small talk about school and my major and my 15-hour flight, and we spent so long waiting for my suitcase in baggage claim that we transcended the stage of awkwardness and reached a state of companionable silence. He helped me carry my things and stood guard by them while I took a mandatory PCR test, spitting into a tube next to a dozen strangers in outdoor stations that resembled a series of phone booths. When I finished, I scanned for Brett amid the crowd of travelers and was nearly convinced I’d lost him before he suddenly materialized by my side. He had unburdened himself of his face shield and cerulean outerwear and now stood before me like a superhero in his civilian attire. “Didn’t recognize me?” he said, amused.

Brett stood by while I waited in line for a taxi to take me to my hotel, where I’d spend the next seven days in travel quarantine before being allowed to enter the university. Each time I looked back, Brett was still there, nodding from a few yards away. Finally, I climbed into a taxi and gave him one last glance. He waved. I waved back. I buckled my seatbelt and the cab driver, a grumpy old a gong puffing on a cigarette, stepped on the gas. When I turned back again, Brett was gone.

I never learned Brett’s real name. I also never learned the name of the taxi driver from whose backseat I gazed at Taipei for the first time, nor did I learn the name of the anonymous hotel employee with whom I developed a borderline parasocial relationship over quarantine as I texted them my daily temperature and symptom report and they sent back cute animal emojis in response. To each of them, I was just another traveler assigned to their supervision; to me, they were akin to NPCs ushering me to my impending coming-of-age summer.

For millennia, humans have attempted to come up with an expression that adequately captures the feeling of a fleeting connection with a stranger. In Ancient Greek, the word philoxenia translates literally to “love of strangers” and describes the sentiment of hospitality so central to ancient Greek culture, illustrated in the Odyssey when Nausicaa bathes and welcomes the unfamiliar Odysseus to Phaeacia. More recently, in 2012, author John Koenig coined the word “sonder” as part of The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, a lexical project that took Tumblr by storm in 2015 (or at least my corner of it as a poetry-writing teen). “Sonder,” according to Koenig’s dictionary, refers to “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own…in which you might appear only once, as an extra sipping coffee in the background, as a blur of traffic passing on the highway, as a lighted window at dusk.” Both of these terms relate to, but don’t quite land on, the feeling I’m trying to pinpoint. The definition of sonder doesn’t encompass the act of actually meeting the stranger, while in the example from the Odyssey, by the time Odysseus is regaling Nausicaa’s family with tales of his heroic misadventures, they are strangers no more. Perhaps Longfellow’s “ships that pass in the night” are the closest analogues to the phenomenon I’m alluding to, or perhaps a more accurate metaphor would be a couple of cars passing one another in the morning traffic. All of these expressions dance around that liminal relationship between two people who meet for just long enough to catch a glimpse of one another as humans, yet whose encounter does not seem to invite the one ritual that turns a stranger into an acquaintance: the exchanging of names.

When you gain knowledge of someone’s name, something else gets lost. In European folklore, a name is a precious thing—give a faerie your name and you effectively grant it ownership of your life. In Judaism, the taboo against uttering or even spelling G-d’s name mitigates the risk that one might use it improperly and defile its sacred nature. Stories from archaic myths to pop culture classics demonstrate the longstanding power that names have held in human society, including fairy tales like “Rumpelstiltskin,” in which the titular imp’s spell breaks after the protagonist gains knowledge of his name; the 2001 film Spirited Away, wherein the witch Yubaba steals other characters’ names to wield control over their identities; and the manga and anime series Death Note, in which the possessor of a Death Note can kill someone simply by writing down their name. Superstitions against naming extend beyond proper nouns. To name your fears is to speak them into existence; to name aloud the wish you made at 11:11 is to render it null and void. A name is not merely a label, but a spell that holds psychological power.

The anxiety of naming becomes especially relevant in human-to-human relationships. To reveal your name to a stranger, to risk entanglement with another, is an inherently intimate act—yet ironically, withholding that vulnerability allows you to be even more vulnerable in the stranger’s presence. In the 1957 film 12 Angry Men, jurors confined to a single room debate for hours over a boy’s fate and inadvertently reveal intimate details about themselves in the process. The only time names are mentioned is during a brief exchange between two jurors at the very end of the film: “What’s your name?” “Davis.” “My name’s McCardle. Well, so long!” There is a kind of sanctity in being a stranger. Without the initial establishment of anonymity, the jurors in 12 Angry Men might not have attacked one another with such vitriol, nor been so quick to expose their own weaknesses.

Etymologically, the word “anonymous” derives from the Greek anōnumos, an- meaning “without” and onuma, “name.” Organizations like Alcoholics Anonymous are founded on the premise that anonymity brings safety, and they provide spaces for individuals to be open about the most buried parts of themselves with the understanding that their affiliation with these groups remains separate from their identities as members of society. Of course, it goes the other way as well—this principle is also responsible for the empowerment an internet troll feels when, relieved of the burden of identity, they direct a fiery round of anonymous hate comments to the celebrity of the moment. In any case, the sense of freedom is undeniable. You could fall on your face in the middle of a foreign city (“At least I’ll never see those people again,” you might say), but you’d probably want to drop out of school if the same thing were to happen at your college graduation (though it’d probably be too late by then anyway). Psychological research suggests that it is oftentimes easier to share your true feelings with a stranger than with close friends or family. In a survey conducted by sociologist Mario Luis Small, when asked to “recall the last time they discussed a matter that was important to them,” 45% of respondents reported that their confidants were not family or close friends but instead so-called “weak ties,” or peripheral relations like barbers or bartenders. If you know a relationship won’t progress beyond a brief, context-dependent encounter, what you reveal about yourself in the other person’s presence seems to hold less weight. Once you exchange names with a stranger, though, a link forms between you, and you go from being irrelevant nobodies to name-bearing, status-holding members of civilization. The relationship has stakes now; the freedom granted by anonymity disappears.

Not only are these non-teleological encounters with strangers liberating, they’re also apparently healthy. According to a 2023 article in The New York Times, “Those who interacted with more weak ties reported greater happiness, and a greater sense of well-being and belonging, than those with fewer interactions…Other studies found similar benefits when people smiled and undertook brief conversations with baristas at a Starbucks in Vancouver, British Columbia, or greeted university shuttle bus drivers in Ankara, Turkey.” It’s worth noting that many of these types of interactions occur in the context of service—in a modern world where people often experience less discomfort scrolling on their phones than making small talk with a stranger in an elevator, encounters with service workers such as waiters or cashiers are the primary scenarios in which we communicate with strangers, and experiences with people like Brett and my cab driver are no exceptions. In his book The Fall of Public Man, theorist Richard Sennett laments the modern decline in interactions with strangers, asserting that “Public life once meant that vital part of one’s life outside the circle of family and close friends. Connecting with strangers in an emotionally satisfying way and yet remaining aloof from them was seen as the means by which the human animal was transformed into the social—the civilized—being.” In other words, interacting with strangers isn’t just a mood boost—it’s essential to our socialization as humans.

Besides, isn’t there something poetic about sharing a fleeting moment with a stranger and never seeing them again? The photography project Humans of New York began as a series of snapshots of anonymous inhabitants of New York City accompanied by a brief story, rant, or philosophical musing told by the photo’s subject, and for the project’s nearly thirteen million Instagram followers, it’s precisely the brevity of our glimpse into the stranger’s life that gives the encounter depth. It serves as a reminder that there will always be infinitely more to a person than we will ever be able to access—a fact that holds true not only for strangers, but even our closest companions in life.

Yet isn’t there a reason we have these closer companionships in the first place? While there are benefits to interacting with strangers, there are also clear benefits to deepening existing relationships, not least due to the fact that humans, as social creatures, require it. In that same article in the Times, a group of strangers who met at a dog park have now “become real friends. They go out to dinner together and see movies and comedy shows…A bit hesitant at first to exchange phone numbers, ‘we took a giant step,’ Ms. Geanoules said.” It’s a hesitant step, perhaps because of the inherent risk that comes with pursuing a more intimate relationship, but one that opens the possibility of more fulfilling rewards later on.

Language itself creates clear delineations between one’s inner and outer circle. French and German, among other languages, distinguish between less and more intimate relationships through employment of a formal and informal “you.” When you first meet a stranger, you might address them formally, but as the relationship progresses, there is a certain point at which the line must be crossed: vous becomes tu, Sie turns into du. If the exchanging of names is the threshold between a stranger and an acquaintance, then the switching of the “you” pronoun represents the transition from an acquaintance to a friend. In Japanese and Korean, honorifics like buchou or sajangnim distinguish your boss from your buddy at work. In the 2021 Netflix series Squid Game, Sang-woo insists that Ali stop addressing him as sajangnim and instead call him hyung, an honorific meaning “older brother” and implying a more intimate relationship. Addressing loved ones by nicknames or pet names like “babe” or “honey” (or, if you’re French, “my little cabbage”) further increases this sense of linguistic intimacy as individuals cross the line from strangers to friends and friends to lovers. The first of any of these line-crossings, however, occurs with the exchange of names.

A name provides a point of reference for a person in your mind, and on a practical level, it allows you to track a person down, whether online or through mutual contacts. In linguistic anthropology, proper names are a uniquely tricky classification because they are tied not to a descriptor or definition but to the singular identity of the being they are representing. “Max” might refer to any number of people named Max, but the word has no meaning in itself until it is attached to the specific Max to whom you are referring. In other words, forget job interview questions that ask you to describe yourself with three adjectives—a proper name is the only word one can use to encapsulate a person in their entirety. When Odysseus first meets the Cyclops Polyphemus, he cleverly protects himself by introducing himself as “Nobody”; however, when he proclaims his real name in a burst of arrogance as he leaves the island, Polyphemus is able to identify him to his father Poseidon, who invokes his divine wrath incessantly upon Odysseus for the rest of his journey. Just as a word represents an idea, a name represents an identity. To know someone’s name is to know them, in the most complete possible way they can be known.

On my first day in Taiwan, it was only after I was already watching the island greenery zoom past me on the highway that I began to regret that Brett knew my name, but I didn’t know his. Our relationship felt unbalanced, as though he were a stranger to me, but I was not a stranger to him. I’d never know who he was or what became of him after our short encounter. Without a name, who—or what—was he to me?

A few months ago, back in the U.S., I called an Uber whose driver, according to the app, was named “Euripides”—a name bound to garner some attention for its rarity, at least in this part of the world. I, who also happen to have a unique name, generally use my initials when signing up for apps. Uber was no exception. Before I even climbed into the car, I already knew my driver’s name, face, and license plate number. He, on the other hand, knew me only as “B.”

Euripides had kind eyes and an impressive, luxuriant beard. For the first half of our twenty-minute drive, we sat quietly through the light drizzle. It was Euripides who broke the silence. “So, you go to school here?”

I latched onto the conversation, grateful he had initiated it. We talked a bit about the area and about my studies, and then there was a lull. Having the advantage of knowing his name, I asked finally if he happened to be from Greece.

Euripides explained to me that his parents had moved to the U.S. from Crete and that he’d grown up speaking Greek at home. We took turns relating our shared experiences as second-generation immigrants. He asked me about my Chinese heritage, and he told me that Chinese was the only language he knew of that referred to Greece by its true name. “We are Hellas, Εllada,” he said. “In Cantonese, we’re hei laap. In Mandarin—what is it again?”

Xi la,” I offered.

“Yes, xi la. But everybody else, the French, the Japanese, they all call us ‘Greece.’ What is China’s real name?”

“China is zhong guo in Mandarin. It’s Kina in Greek, right? I took a class on Modern Greek a while ago, but I’ve probably forgotten most of it.”

Euripides took it upon himself to quiz me on my Greek. For some reason, the first words that came to my mind were “flower” (louloudi) and “movie theater” (kinimatografos). I also told him I remembered basic greetings, like kalimera and how to say my name.

“How do you say it?” he asked.

Eimai i Baylina,” I said. I am Baylina.

“Baylina,” Euripides repeated.

We arrived at my destination and Euripides pulled into the parking lot. As I gathered my belongings, I thought with some sadness that in all likelihood, I would never see Euripides again.

“Thanks for the ride,” I said.

“No problem,” he replied.

I stepped out of the car. As I was about to shut the door, Euripides waved at me and said, with a wide grin, “Geia sou!”

I blinked. Geia sou was a way to say goodbye in Greek, but its literal meaning, as I recalled, was “your health.” It had neither the assurance of a “See you later,” nor the finality of an adieu. It was simply a wish toward the good health of another, whether you’d see them the next day or never again. Even if it were the latter, I thought, At least I know his name, and he knows mine. At least we were something more, if only a little, than strangers.

Geia sou!” I called back, and I watched the Uber pull away and disappear into the rain.

Baylina Pu graduated from Yale in 2023. She has read for The Yale Review and Columbia Journal, and her work has been recognized by The Yale Literary Magazine, University of Virginia Writer’s Eye, Hollins University, The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, and more. She is currently pursuing an MFA at Columbia University. You can find her at baylinapu.com.

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