Saturday, February 05, 2005


Today a new guy turned up at the house. He's a chinese guy studying accounting in the Uni. So after I ascertained that he was really going to take a room here- there have been many people who come in take a look and are never seen again, and if I had any brains i would have been somebody like that- I asked him his name and he said-Bruce. I was once again reminded the weirdness of the issue of names and chinese students here.

When I first came here and started making acquaintances, I found that the chinese students invariably had Christian names ie Western names. I didn't think to much of this because you know, Christianity is so widespread, it's not surprising to find chinese guys with Christian names. It's a well known phenomenon in India, that you can glean quite a bit of information from a name. Religion, caste, sub-caste, location etc etc. However, my taxonomic abilities are modest at best, but I can distinguish between religions, for example.

So one day we were sitting down to a dinner that the (Christian) Indonesian girl had prepared to celebrate her imminent departure, and she said a small prayer before the meal. The rest of us were silent during this, but I was a bit surprised that one of the Christian-named chinese girls asked what the prayer was about. I had until then assumed that they were all Christian. So later I asked them about it and they said that children who are going to study further adopt 'english' names because they are definitely going to places where it will be difficult for non-chinese to pronounce their true names. I understand this, most people mangle my name anyway, but still, it strikes me as a bit weird that you would adopt a pseudonym so calmly. I am also tempted sometimes to give a fake name just to avoid the repeated attempts to get my name right, but actually I don't care all that much, my name has been mispronounced enough times in my life for me to shrug it off.
I tried to learn their original chinese names, and since I can more or less mimic very well, I could reproduce the sound. However, since my extent of conversation is restricted to Hi! and Good morning! or whatever, I never really bothered to um... remember their names. It is easier to remember the fake names though.

Anyway to get to the end of all this rambling: I am one of those who believe that a name is special and sacred, and the chinese willingness to use a completely different name, totally devoid of any cultural significance etc as their public face, sounds quite weird to me.

Update: The only way I can come to terms with this phenomenon is by taking refuge in Fantasy. It's quite a common motif in Fantasy writing to have two names: a Use Name and a True name. The Use name is one which everyone knows you by, but the True name is the one that grants some sort of power to the user over you. I think I've come across so many variations of this, but examples are eluding me. I think Le Guin uses it in a short story somewhere, and Robert Holdstock is almost obsessed by True names. In one book, a small girl starts naming the countryside around here, and she can venture into a certain meadow only when she discovers its True name.