My name, at least while in the US, is Liren Fu. First name first and last name last, its cultural ambiguity marks a question for new readers: am I “lie-ren” or “lee-ren”? “Lee-ren” or “lee-ren”? Add my lisp and a strong tone-deaf-ness into the picture, and you can see how my name gets muffled, even back in Singapore; on both sides of the world, people rarely get my name right.
And yet, for most of my life, I wasn’t Liren Fu; for 20 years actually, I was always Fu Liren, last name first and first name last. That, theoretically, isn’t a big difference; which side of the river you place a house on shouldn’t technically matter. And yet it does.
It does in the way that saying 符溧仁 marks me as Hainanese, first and foremost, and Liren Fu says it like an afterthought, a whisper of a breath after the main course. It matters the way in Primary School you learnt whether names were English or Chinese by which side of the river the house was built; that English names came before surnames and Chinese names came after and where you needed to start speaking with tonal inflections was where you knew the family name.
It matters because when I was younger, my dad taught me to remember 符 as beginning with bamboo leaves, shielding the rest of the character as a roof. That though I speak no Hainanese, when I hear someone else’s 符 I know the roots of our bamboo go deep, go back to the same island, same water, same soft yielding sand. That 符 comes with its own stereotypes; as a Hainanese male, I am allegedly an excellent cook, devastatingly handsome, and will make a terrible husband (this last point is particularly unfortunate, considering the first two).
My family name marks my origin, and my clan; it marks where I come from, and who I come with. The thing about Chinese names is that they move with the force of a wave; they speak of lives before yours that in their course have moved you to where you are, and will be. My name is my own prophecy; my 仁 marks a magnanimity that has been wished for, a kindness and human compassion that is supposed to anchor and guide me. My 仁 is a reminder to be kind, to listen, to find space in my heart for others; and when a mentor said that it made so much sense, it felt like light on a leaf, the fitting of nature with practice.
My name is also, uniquely, my desire for myself too. I was born with 力, not 溧; not the river, not the association with wealth and growth, but with strength, force and energy. The fun story I tell about this is that when I was 8, I told my mum that 力 reminded me of a 刀 cutting through my life; kitchen cleaver forced across a cutting board, severing the connection of my life. I always thought it slightly absurd that my mum took me at my word, took the trouble to go back to the fengshui master and re-calculate my fortune; how strange that it took my mum telling me, last summer, that she changed it because even then I was always talking about wanting to die, for me to remember how young mental illness can start.
That 溧 is the name of a river that no one in my family has ever been associated with; it speaks to none of my blood roots. And yet, it speaks to my own personal roots; that 溧 is the river of my past, the stream of my thoughts that has wound through two homes and multiple countries to bring me here, no longer wishing for darkness over light. And I wonder too, though my mum always said the switch was for wealth, if she recognized the underlying symbol of flowing water; that in switching from strength to what gave life to two cities, she too was trying to cast her own prophecy over me, to sway the course of my life yet again.
My name stands for symbol and alignment, bamboo trees; for water and wealth, the magnanimity and compassion to know what to do with it, and an underlying strength. Yet even this is a simplification; I have even more names, Fuli for the friends who saw me through the darkest times, Fufu for when they came as I reached rock bottom and started swimming up. Sunflower for the debate teammates who have seen who I am, constant, even as sides and issues artificially change, and Lir, a Spanish inflection only possible here, on the other side of the world from where I was born.
Each name I have, or am given, marks an intersection between myself and another; it marks mutual history, a shared bond, and a wishing for a future current. My names have grown out of my interactions with others and my history; my names, though superficially arbitrarily given, are anything but. Even Liren Fu, as strange as it first sounded, marks a new intersection; marks when I first boarded that flight out of Changi, not knowing what I would find when I landed in Logan. And so, any time someone asks, on either side of this world, why I don’t simply choose a new English name for convenience, I simply smile, brush it aside; I am, and always will be, more interested in the names I have been given.