Opinion //

What’s in a name?

Names can be the site of a hidden political struggle, writes Baopu He. This entry placed second in the 2016 Opinion Competition, judged by Guardian editor Lenore Taylor.


Like so many other second generation Chinese Australian males, I was to be named Kevin. But if you asked my parents why, they probably wouldn’t have said, “Oh, because Kevin comes from the Old Irish name Cóemgein, which itself consists of the words ‘coem’, meaning handsome, and ‘gein’, meaning birth. And that basically summarises our hopes and dreams for this child.”

No, I was to be called Kevin because it was the most Anglo-Saxon name my parents could think of. To them, Kevin was the summation of what Western civilization had to offer; the crux of what it meant to be an accepted member of White society – after all, it was one of the names they had seen so often in their English textbooks (one those inane characters who had robotic conversations like “Hello Jane, how are you?” “Hello Kevin, I am fine thank you, could you please pass me the umbrella?”). Its syllables perfectly sculpted for the English speaking mouth, Kevin was supposed to be my passport for social mobility, one that would signal to the rest of Australia that they shouldn’t fear me because I was one of them. I might as well have been born with a flashing neon sign above my head saying “DEDICATED TO BEING ASSIMILATED”.

But I am not called Kevin. In an epiphany that was catalysed by what can only be described as a combination of the gnawing existential angst every new immigrant experiences, a growing disillusionment with Western society, and more importantly, the pesky “v” in the middle of Kevin which they couldn’t consistently pronounce, my parents decided to not give me an official English name. Immigration had proven to be a costly business, both economically and emotionally, and they had already lost so much. But to name their son something they couldn’t even pronounce? That would just top it off.

In many ways, culture loss begins with a name; it’s the look of amused disappointment Kevin He’s relatives give when they discover he only goes by Kevin, and the Yang family who becomes the Young family, first in name, and then in everything else.

And yet, there is a unique beauty to Chinese names, one that partly stems from the fact that the Chinese language is written with thousands and thousands of symbols, primitive drawings which over the course of three millennia have matured to create a profoundly visual writing system. Amidst the seemingly chaotic flurry of lines which make up each symbol is a story, and it is through these stories do we learn the meaning of each symbol.

Unfortunately, this beauty doesn’t translate well to the rigid, alphabetical ugliness of English – it’s hard to condense the richly layered meaning behind each symbol when you’ve only got 26 letters at your disposal. And so 抱朴 became Baopu. And Baopu became the bane of my existence for much of my childhood.

Despite it all, I don’t blame all the kids at school for making fun of it. Stripped of the melodious tones of Chinese, Baopu sounds comical, like something a plumber would use to unblock a toilet, as I was once told. This attitude does not end with primary school; a recent study done by ANU has found that people with Chinese sounding names need to submit 68 per cent more applications to get the same number of interviews as someone with an English one. It’s for this reason that I reluctantly go by “Bob”, a pathetic attempt at Anglicisation, in the public sphere, lest I affront anyone with how strange my name sounds.

But if only they knew what Baopu actually meant! Unlike English, a Chinese name’s meaning isn’t something hidden away in an obscure etymological tome, but is really the first thing you notice about it. When I tell a native speaker what my name is, they appreciate its beauty, marvel at its meaning, and sometimes, they sigh and wished they’d given their children a Chinese name as well.

Baopu comes from the Daodejing, the holy book of Taoism written in the 6th century BC, and it means ‘to embrace the simplicity of the unhewn log’ – a lot for just two syllables, but such is the beauty of the Chinese language. The unhewn log is a metaphor for man’s most original nature, an Eastern version of tabula rasa, and in embracing it, you refuse to be swayed by any external forces because you are, as it were, resolutely yourself. Slowly, I understand why my migrant parents gave me such a name.

Baopu is a testament to the sacrifices my parents have made for me, and to the beauty of my Chinese heritage. And in using it, I am determined to honour them both, even if it’s in name only.

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence.

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