In 1984 my mother took me to New Caledonia. I was 11 and it was the first time I had been overseas. One of the reasons we went to New Caledonia and not another Pacific island was because New Caledonia was French. For my mother, who had taken French at school and was good at it, and admired many aspects of French culture, this was an important factor. I grew up understanding that the adjective French meant better. So French food, French wine or French fashion meant that those things had a certain je ne sais quoi. It was only when I went to France for the first time in my thirties that I was disabused of many of these ideas. The first thing I said in Paris was “fuck off”. Things went downhill from there.
Problematically my name is and is not French: John but not Jean-Paul. It has always led people astray. It is the job of a name to label something, but we expect the labels and the things themselves to have cultural links; to play the game of connotation. It’s a game my name doesn’t play. In the 80s and 90s in New Zealand it was a name most New Zealanders couldn’t cope with and when I introduced myself my interlocutors would flip between John and Paul like a computer trying to read a binary 1 or 0 but not both. I was John to some, and Paul to others, but rarely was I John-Paul to most when I was a kid.
People like to make sense of my name by comparing it to another John-Paul they have heard of. When I was growing up this was invariably the Pope. Because of Pope John-Paul II some people assumed I was Catholic, but I wasn’t, and the name John-Paul only became associated with the papacy in 1978: five years after I was born. When Pope John-Paul II finally died I booked my hot poker in hell by being glad; finally freed of the unwanted association. At university well-informed or pretentious people associated my name with Satre. While I was in Japan many Japanese thought of the fashion designer Gaultier and, more elliptically, the Beatles (apologies to George and Ringo).
My name has also, of course, led people to think I am French, or have French ancestry, or speak French. None of those things are true. It didn’t stop my French teacher in Year 9 constantly calling on me in class for the sheer pleasure it gave her of saying my name, or a lecturer at university asking me to translate a French passage in a book we were reading in front of the tutorial group. It was tempting to respond to his request for me to translate with a curt “non”, but I just said “ah, sorry…” instead. I should have been embarrassed I suppose but I just thought he was a plonker.
Then there is the particular awkwardness of meeting the French. I assume that to them my name is a curious bastardization and treated the same way that snotty teachers treat any English name spelled unconventionally: “It’s spelled J-H-O-R-D-H-A-N, Mr”. The only time I insist on my name being said “properly” is with a French person I don’t like: “no, sorry, it’s JOHN-Paul, not Jean-Paul”. It’s like being asked to chew tin foil for them. It works well for both of us. They think I’m a cretin, and I enjoy their displeasure.
My name does and doesn’t mean all of those things. To me it means my mother liked French at school. It means my father’s father was John and my mother’s father was Paul. But it also means all those misunderstandings and missteps. It means saying my name is John to people I think I will never meet again, and explaining that my last name is not Paul, or that it’s John and not Jean, and that JP is ok. Finally, it means being patient and good-humoured.
If you have an odd name you either learn to be patient and good-humoured or you spend your life grumpy. There’s no point in being grumpy. The universe doesn’t know you or require your collection of atoms to have a label at all. The air doesn’t know you when you breath and the earth doesn’t know you when you die. Had you been born in another time, in another place….