What’s in a name? or, Who am I?

Shakespeare told us that: ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet’, which is true, to an extent. And yet, and yet…

Some people suit their name. There are those people who are utterly, one hundred percent, an ‘Annie’ or a ‘Joe’. Perhaps they were the first person called Annie that you ever met, or they remind you of another Joe you once knew, or they are a dead ringer for a celebrity with the same name.

Names are often wrong, though. I often meet someone and find it impossible to remember their name because it simply doesn’t suit them, according to my personal opinion. It doesn’t quite seem to fit their face / personality / dress-sense… It doesn’t fit in with my worldview. It happens a lot. Countless times. As a young teen I was taught drama by a girl (Natalie, maybe?) who should have been named Mel because she was basically a younger version of my babysitter Melanie. At university I did a project with a woman (Emily, perhaps? I’m really scraping the barrel, here) around whom I had to physically bite my tongue if I wanted to prevent myself calling her Gaelin, after my neighbor in high school. And now I cannot remember their names. Their names were obscured by memories of other people.

Every Harriet will forever be eclipsed by the girl I grew up spending every weekend with, pretending we were sisters by wearing identical jeans and striped t-shirts as we climbed trees and bounced on the trampoline in her countryside garden. Those memories are so strong that ‘Harriet’ just means one person, to me.

Sometimes, a name is surprising. Maybe it is just such an uncommon name that it takes a while for the name-face match to embed itself in your brain. My boyfriend’s name is Sven. He is the only Sven I have ever met or even heard of within the realm of possible acquaintance. It took me weeks to stop telling him: “I can’t believe your name is actually Sven!” It’s not a common name in the UK, in the USA or, apparently, anywhere else he has lived either. He’s only met a handful of people with the same name. He once emailed back and forth with the guy in Germany with an identical name (surname and given name), because American Sven got the Gmail address first. In fact, our South African pilot flying us from Hong Kong to Beijing on Dragon Air last Sunday was also named Sven, and my boyfriend was boastful about having glimpsed ‘pilot Sven’ as we alighted at 2.30am in Beijing.

There are a whole host of issues we have with names and how we remember people. Some are better at it than others (I swear, my sister remembers every single name ever told to her – she knows all the names of our brother’s reams of friends, while I know about five), some people simply seem more memorable than others. But it is different when you cannot remember your own name.

There are plenty of days when I “don’t feel myself” – that’s a phrase I would often use when I am feeling under the weather. But usually those days are when I am most aware of my body, my health and my priorities. I am closest to myself in the moments when I give myself space to relax. The irony is, I am most conscious of who I am when I recognise that I am not giving my body or mind what it needs.

Today was one of those days. I had been playing catch up since last weekend, when we got home to bed at 4.30am on Monday after living it up in Hong Kong for three nights. I have taken on new students, I had stayed up super late mid-week and I have had to force myself to find time to blog every single day. So I arrived at Friday night and totally conked out.

Saturday is my only day off. If there’s something to be done I cannot manage during the week, Saturday’s my time to get that done. Otherwise it waits a week, sometimes two if I’m teaching the coming weekend. So, I had high hopes for today. And an expansive, flowing, metre-long to-do list. That, of course, I did not complete for sheer exhaustion.

I had plans to meet my boyfriend for lunch and a coffee an indeterminate length of time after I finally climbed out of bed. Although I woke up thirsty and eager for food, I simultaneously did not want to rush. Saturday is treat day. Saturday includes zero percent rushing. I am permitted to: Take. It. Easy.

At around 1.30pm, when I still hadn’t showed up, he messaged me, addressing me by name. And that’s when I realised I didn’t identify with my own name. What was written on my screen did not, at that moment, equal the body whose weight I could feel and whose reflection I saw in the mirror. Not today.

Your perspective shifts, sometimes, when you work 13 days straight and don’t get enough sleep, and some things get unmoored. Even if you’re supposedly writing your feelings every day, for public eyes, you lose sight of the really important things in life. And it takes time to find yourself again.

I thought back to all of the names I have been called throughout my life. My father used to call me Big C (before this took on the sinister association with cancer). My sister chased me around yelling ‘Caca’ as a two year old (which means “poo” in French), and the names my brother calls me change regularly. I grew up as one thing, but that changed when I left home. My university friends didn’t understand the link between the two names until much later. I have many names, now. Some friends know me as my Korean name, some as my Chinese name, and my students call out my surname (when they make the effort to go beyond ‘teacher”, that is).

I am many different things to many different people. But, to myself, I am someone unique, loved and undeterred by public opinion. It is nice to get back in touch with that person, when time allows. It is nice to remember that you’re not the sum of what you do.

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