Naming and Its Discontents

By Ka Bradley

My mother first came to the United Kingdom as the young wife of her former tutor, on the visa equivalent of ‘and guest’. She was the only plus-one in a group of Cambodian PhD hopefuls.

Her father expressed disbelief over her decision to travel to the U.K. with her new husband. “You can live here,” he’d said, “in the house, until he’s back.” As if the wedding ceremony were something like a birthday party; a nice excuse for a celebration, but not something to derail the habits of a life, and particularly not a life that my grandfather had so meticulously planned.

“But he’s my husband,” my mother pointed out. “I married him. What I’m doing is normal.”

Or words to this effect.

 Ka Bradley

Ka Bradley

In truth, no one except my mother was entirely sure why my mother would want to leave the comfort of her bourgeoisie home to live in relative poverty with a student husband, in a rainy, Anglophone country halfway across the world. Even her husband – my brother’s father – was not fully convinced by her decision. He was the only PhD candidate who was travelling while espoused and seemed faintly embarrassed about it.

There were a number of hurdles that had either to be jumped, walked around, or kicked over. My mother’s husband’s student stipend could barely support the both of them. My mother had the option of parental support, but this option was less of a safety net and more of cage – she’d be ‘daughter’ and not ‘wife’ forever. Besides, her marriage, even in its nascent stages, had been harried by whispers that her father had bought himself a son-in-law.

My mother would have to get a job. Except that she didn’t have any formal qualifications, and her father would savagely disapprove of her taking on a ‘menial’ job. Further exception: she did not speak any English, only French.

Still, hurdles are there to be traversed.

The other problem was the family name. My mother no longer had her family name; she had her husband’s.

Her husband’s family name was Chea.

“We can’t use that in the U.K.,” he’d said.

“Why not?”

“It sounds Chinese. They’ll think we’re Chinese.”

Given the name they chose, this is worth briefly parsing. It would be embarrassing for a Khmer couple to be mistaken for Chinese; they were not, after all, Chinese, but they could hardly expect Westerners to differentiate or even bother to try; perhaps they already had some intimations about the British attitude toward their former colonial subjects; the Chinese and Chinese-Khmer communities were a thriving and successful minority in Cambodia, which is why they were so brutally persecuted during the Khmer Rouge; identity is so often formed in opposition, as my mother was about to find out.

“We could use your first name,” my mother suggested. This was precisely what her father had done when he shrugged off the coat of rural poverty and ascended to the capital as a young man. My mother’s family name was her father’s first name, an indelible stamping of his personality on her life.

“Yes, alright,” her husband agreed.

Or words to that effect.

My brother’s father’s first name was Bun Ny.

My poor brother.

***

Neither my brother nor I use the full versions of our names habitually. I won’t attempt to explain my brother’s choice. It’s his story, not mine. In fact, my mother’s story is her story too. I don’t know why I insist on telling it. I’m not a narrator. I’m just a narcissist. (Is narration a form of narcissism? I tend to think of the first person as combative introversion and the second person as inquisitive extroversion. Is the third person, then, an ascendency to neutrality? Am I right to think of neutrality as the ascendant? I digress, because I am avoiding the labour of telling this story. I am my own unreliable narrator.)

I have very particular rules about how my name is used. I often refer to the name you will see in the byline, ‘Ka’, as my professional/social name. It’s the name on my business card – incredibly, I’ve got one of those – and the name I use with my friends – incredibly, I’ve got those too. The name on my birth certificate, my ‘real’ name, is only used by the following:

1)   my family

2)   friends and lovers who have been around long enough and have suffered the affliction of my person warmly enough that they are practically family

3)   anyone Cambodian

I would like to cosily let you know that all Cambodians ever are my proxy family. The silt of the Mekong runs through my veins, the complexes of Angkor Wat are my lymphic system. Every time I sneeze, the rainforest curls. I would very much like to pull that on you.

The problem is, everyone in Cambodia thinks I’m a Westerner.

If they can work out I’m mixed race, they’ll see me as intrinsically Western anyway. Which I am; I was born in London, and I’ve lived here all my life. I am steeped in Western values. The silt of the Thames runs through my veins, the kindergarten-toy-shaped skyscrapers of the City are my vital organs. When I scratch my ear, the Tower burns.

The problem is, I’m not White, either. Sometimes more visibly than other times. Sometimes I’m not White in a way that means I am, somehow, not quite Western, or, at least, not doing things the Western way. I am fortunate in that these moments have almost never showed themselves as altercations, only as differences. (Almost.) And difference is not necessarily alienating. (Not necessarily.)

I am neither one nor other. This is literally the definition of ‘mixed race’ and you would have thought that after twenty-eight years of oscillating between the two I would have found some form of peace by now. It helps that my grasp of Khmer is limited, a little lyrical and appalling. I’m writing this essay in English. If I am treating it as a confessional, then I’m confessing to my Anglophone compatriots. I’m confessing into the speaking tube I’ve been awkwardly croaking concrete and abstract concepts into all of my articulate life.

About a year ago, The Offing published a piece that I wrote which was, in its entirety, about my mother and my grandfather. My grandfather’s first name, incidentally, is one of my middle names, an indelible stamping of his personality across my life. I never knew him but he echoes in me constantly.

Or, well, I like to think that he does.

I was very proud of that piece. I thought it was important, if not to anyone else then at least to me. And then I thought, “I should probably stop writing about the Cambodian thing. People will get bored of it. They’ll start to think it’s just an angle I’m pushing because it makes me seem like a serious special snowflake, or else because I’m a one-trick pony.”

I started to feel like a cultural appropriator. I started to feel like I was appropriating myself.

***

The name ‘Ka’ was not one that I had chosen. It is the mispronunciation of the first syllable of my ‘real’ name rendered in Roman script. It was applied to me at school, where everyone knew what my full name was.

When I went up to university, I took it with me, contextless and monosyllabic. I have spent a decade explaining that my name is not Karl. I should have opted to call myself something clear and memorable, like Dangertits. I regret my decision deeply.

With a name like Dangertits, I could have avoided conversations like this:

“That’s an unusual/interesting/nice name. Where’s it from?”

“Oh, it’s not from anywhere. It’s not my real name.”

“…Right.”

Telling people that the name you habitually use is not your ‘real’ name is the ultimate in special snowflaking. It cries: discover me! I’m different! Ask me for more information! If you listen carefully to me when I make this statement, you can hear the whisper of I’m not like other girls playing under my vocal chords, like an embedded midi track on a Myspace profile page.

I do not intend for this to be the case.

I am very reluctant to describe the name on my birth certificate, my Cambodian name, as anything other than ‘real’. But a noticeably foreign name is more burdened with assumption and speculation than an aggressive, nonsensical neologism.

I am not always convinced that I, the mixed-race woman, am ‘real’ enough in my person, in my culture, in my representation, to bear this burden.

Recently, I used the line ‘Ka isn’t my real name’ while I was interviewing Asian-Canadian author Madeleine Thien.

The purpose of the interview was mainly to talk about her gorgeous, epic and most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, which is (loosely) about the Tiananmen Square protests, although it spans two families and three generations so is ‘about’ a fair bit more than that.

Among the topics we’d discussed was the presence of China in her childhood, in her adolescence. Thien’s parents are both Chinese. She does not speak fluent Mandarin.

“My mother spoke Cantonese, and my father spoke Hakka, another minority language. But, you see, the cadence of Chinese runs through me.”

We spoke more about the difference between the Chinese and Western conception about the way we, as individuals, travel through time; about the absence of the exact word ‘silence’ from Chinese; about music and translation. But what I clung to was the moment she’d said that, despite the fact that her mother tongue was English, the cadence of Chinese ran through her. (She meant something more than language.)

I felt like I’d been sitting and worrying at the bottom of a well, and someone had offered me a ladder. No, more accurately, I felt like someone had handed me a dictionary. I had been given a word for a meaning I had vaguely grasped, but could not express.

A cadence runs through me, ebbing in volume and triumphantly discordant. It is not the thing itself; it is about the thing itself. It is easily misheard but it is its own. I am about myself, which is as clear as I can get right now.

***

When I was an undergraduate, one of my tutors accused me of underhand use of parentheses in essays. I kept trying to sneak in important but unfinished ideas by including them as addendums to the paragraph proper, because I was too damn lazy to unpick them.

Please be lenient with me when you read the parentheses. Give me another twenty-eight years, and I’ll see if I can tell you what I am, even if that means spending another three decades working out what it is I am not.


Ka Bradley is an editor at Granta Books & Portobello Books and a contributing editor at Minor Literature[s]. Her writing has appeared in Queen Mob's Tea House, Minor Literature[s], The Offing and Catapult. She was the winner of the inaugural Shooter short story prize.


More of this year's essay series:

Sonya Vatomsky, Mothertonguetied: The Fantasy of Belonging
Jayy Dodd, The Impossible Outside (or, A Zumbi's Autopsy)
Liz HowardNaming and Its Discontents
Victorio Reyes, Discovering Existence - A Cross-Textual Essay
Sophfronia ScottOf Flesh and Spirit

To see more essays from last year, go here.

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