Having more than one name

Monday August 16, 2010


It happened for the first time this morning. I was checking out of the hotel in Qinzhou up the road, and I asked for a receipt. They told me to write down my name so that they could process the receipt. I wrote down “Will Buckingham”. They frowned. No, they said, that won’t do. I need to write down my name in Chinese. So I wrote down Bo Houde (博厚德) in Chinese. They seemed satisfied with this, and processed the receipt. When they handed the receipt to me, I realised that although in some cases I was Will Buckingham, in other cases, Bo Houde was now who I actually was.

Then again, a few days ago in Xi’an, I was invited to dinner with a group of people I had recently met. In the absence of a shared language between us all, and also in the absence of anybody better to do the job, I became the official translator for the evening. At the end of the evening as we made our way home, our Chinese host – a serious young man with some interesting views – engaged me in conversation, and once again, addressed me exclusively as Houde. And I founds myself thinking that it is strange how quickly I had taken to this name, how quickly I had started to feel at home in it.

The name was chosen for me by the mother of my Chinese teacher. It’s a serious kind of a name. Bo, the surname, means something like “abundant” and “Houde” means something like “deep virtue”. A name, then, to live up to. And it is a name that I’ve also been using, or that I have found being used, ever more frequently since coming to China. At first, in other words, it felt as if having a Chinese name was interesting, and good for Chinese classes, but it was not something that had much impact in the world outside; but after a while here, I’m beginning to find that it is somthing that is beginning to infiltate my life more broadly.

Years ago, I read an essay by Clifford Geertz, the anthroplogist, which drew on his fieldwork in Morocco in – I think (I don’t have any sources present, so I’m doing this from memory) – the 1970s. And in this essay, as far as I recall, he talks about the way that men in the Atlas mountains could have up to fourteen different names, depending on who they were talking to and when. This struck me at the time as fascinating, and I can remember thinking back then that this must do interesting things to one’s sense of self.

Some time ago, I considered taking on a Buddhist name. I always saw this as an alternative name, rather than a replacement, so that in some contexts I would use my decidedly English sounding “Will Buckingham” (it doesn’t get more English than that) and in some contexts something in Sanskrit. Things in the end didn’t work out that way; but one thing that was interesting was how spooked many friends and family seemed to be by the idea of having another name, as if this a kind of annihilation of my person. I myself never saw it like this, and I was intrigued by the possibilities of having alternative names and identities, as I was intrigued by the strength of emotional response from some of the people around me. We take our names, that is to say, pretty seriously. So seriously, in fact, that I wonder if they become linguistic tokens that reflect a determinedly non-fluid, monolithic and fixed view of persons. If this is the case, then having more than one name perhaps goes against the tendency to imagine that somehow an essence of us can be captured in a few fixed and immutable words – a weird piece of metaphysical voodoo if there ever was one. It recognises that we are contextual beings, that our lives and our persons are not isolated but are lived in relationship to others (this was what Geertz discussed, if I remember, in his article – but again, it’s been a long time, and I may be wrong). It gives a bit of breathing space.

So I’m glad to be Bo Houde, as I’m glad to be Will Buckingham. I’ve got a way to go until I can manage to emulate those folks in the Atlas mountains, but I’m finding that living with more than one name is something that allows a little air to circulate within the chambers of my sense of self.

Who am I? Will Buckingham. Bo Houde. thinkBuddha. Take your pick. Ah, yes, but who am I really? Now, there’s a question.

# · Casey

Thou art that, right?! :)

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