I spent four months in Korea in 2005 without anyone calling me anything except ‘Davey’, ‘Sir’ or ‘Professor Davey’. This time around, two weeks into my three month residency, I’ve already been given a real Korean name; promptly forgotten it; asked someone else to translate its meaning for me; remembered it again; and, finally, re-met the person who gave it to me originally. And I couldn’t be happier.
The thing about Korean names (and please note that my knowledge on this subject is about as extensive as Chris de Burgh’s punk collection) is that you get a whole bunch of them. There’s the ‘temporary’ name you get at birth, something along the lines of ‘bubba’ or ‘baby’. Then within about two months you get your Chinese ‘birth’ name, which is derived from your astrological sign, plus a complex combination of the significance of your day and time of birth etc.
Then of course, there’s your actual Korean name, which is commonly chosen by your grandparents (though not always) and may also depend on the names of older cousins and other relatives. Finally (I hope), there’s your Anglicised or English name, which for Catholics is often your confirmation name but which might also be based on names perceived as being popular in the West.
This would explain the number of my former students with names like ‘Brandon’ and ‘Priscilla’. But it doesn’t help me explain the way in which I came to be called Bek-ho (백호), or ‘White Tiger’. For a start, I was born in the Year of the Rat, so I should be called ‘White Rat’, which doesn’t have such a majestic ring to it. Secondly, obviously, I’m not Korean, and I doubt that any of my grandparents had much of an interest in giving me a Korean name when I was born.
On the other hand, I did apparently have the unofficial nickname of ‘Buddha’ when I was a very young (and extremely plump) child, so that has to count for something. And as I already have an English name, I’m one step ahead of the competition there. But what led that young Korean gentleman to give me the name of White Tiger when we were sitting outside the classically-named ‘Mania Street’ bar last Friday night, and what led me to forget the name almost as soon as he had bestowed it upon me?
Alcohol obviously plays a part in this kind of story, but I am also convinced that the process of gaining such a powerful and moving name as ‘Bek-ho’ must involve at least a short period of rejection of said name, otherwise there would be no point sticking with one name at all. I mean, I’ve received all kinds of names over the years (some more or less savoury, more or less anatomically-accurate) and I haven’t ever just turned around and said, ‘You’re right, and I accept this name.’
Okay so there have been a few exceptions to that hastily cobbled-together rule. But the point is that I don’t think anyone has ever sat down and looked at me in serious silence and then pondered for a full two minutes the question of what my name should be. On all of those previous occasions, the name came immediately to mind due to some hilarious (or not) situation, and either quickly stuck or was forgotten.
On this occasion, as I have already intimated, Bek-ho was both immediately accepted and forgotten, by me anyway. I don’t really know what was going through the guy’s mind as he sized me up, but I presume it was something along the lines of – hmmm, powerful paws and considerable girth; shining stripey pelt and faintly pale stripe colour; intimidating roar and penchant for meat … well, you get the idea. Although I’ve never heard of a tiger that drinks beer until 5am waiting for someone to come up with its name.
The fact that I forgot my own name led to my being in a state of limbo for several days, until I happened to be out with a couple of friends, one of whom speaks passable Korean, and who was able to communicate with a very tattooed barman who wrote down the hangul characters for Bek-ho. As soon as I heard the words ‘Bek-ho’ I experienced a transformation from a state of limbo to a state of new awareness.
Ever since I have been saying my new name to anyone who will listen. Invariably I get a laugh or two but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also receive more than my fair share of odd looks. Even the guy who gave this precious new name to me had to laugh when we met for a second time, and I triumphantly introduced myself as ‘Bek-ho’. I could see him thinking: this Hoju White Tiger is, hmmm, just a little weird.
Those of you who know me well would of course be tempted to ask: what’s new? To which I would respond: not much, but call me Bek-ho, please, from now on.
I am White Tiger.
Hear me roar.
*trudges slowly back inside fake cave within cramped zoo enclosure*