The summer after I finished fifth grade, my family moved from Flushing, Queens to the suburbs of Houston. For the past three years, I had attended P.S. 20 just two blocks from our high-rise apartment building. We played in the asphalt-covered playground at P.S. 20 and sometimes hit tennis balls against the handball court wall. By this age, I had done enough research to know that this was not the childhood I was meant to have.
One or two Judy Blume books would have been enough to teach anyone about the proper American childhood. I had read them all. For starters, we were supposed to live in a house. Our own house. Not in some apartment building where the downstairs neighbor came charging up the minute you ran from the bedroom to the kitchen. And this house, our house, was supposed to be in the suburbs. And everyone was supposed to have a lawn. With sprinklers. And the house was supposed to come with at least one pet, preferably a quadruped.
When my parents announced that we were moving to Houston, I knew this was it. To set it all right. To start the childhood I was supposed to have. I pictured the houses with pools, the school buses, the sprinklers, the lawns, the whole schbang. I imagined myself riding my bicycle down the tree-lined blocks, waving at neighbors and friends across the street.
And there was one other thing. To go with my new life, I decided that I needed a new name. One that fit my new life, my new beginning. No one would butcher my new name trying to pronounce it. And no one in Houston would call me “Shin,” as my teachers always did. I remember coming home and crying to my mom that I’m not a shoe (a homonym for shin in Korean).
I thought about it incessantly. What name would go with my last name? Would it roll off the tongue easily? Would it present me as I was meant to be presented? As I walked around, I sounded out different names to myself. Catherine Oh? Connie Oh? Michelle Oh? I told myself that it didn’t matter that I already knew a Connie. We were moving and she would never find out that I stole her name.
After much deliberation, I decided to go with Christine. It had just enough syllables to balance out the exclamatory Oh. And while I knew a couple of Christina’s, I knew no Christine. I was relieved that I would not have to defend taking another’s name to my sister and brother.
When I announced it over dinner to my mom and dad, they were startled.
“Shinyung is a perfectly good name. Why would you change it? Don’t you like it?”
I still remember the hurt look on my mother’s face. But it didn’t prevent me from changing my name.
During my third year of college, I took a class called American Lives. In the class, we read biographies and autobiographies of famous Americans. While reading Harriet Wilson’s “Our Nig,” we discussed the significance of naming in American culture. What it meant, as Americans, to be able to name ourselves, to take ownership of our identities.
In the course of that class, I started thinking about my own name. Why I had, as a 12-year-old child, shed my Korean name and picked an American one out of the blue. Suddenly, I started feeling like a phony. Even though I had named myself, I felt like it had been for the wrong reasons, as if I had given up a part of myself. Instead of making others pronounce my name correctly, I had sought an escape.
I reverted to my Korean name then. As I had done to my parents almost eleven years earlier, I forced my friends to adjust to what was to them my new name.
Now that I am expecting our baby, with the due date just three months away, I’m wondering about this naming business all over again. What kind of name should he have? Should he have a Korean name and an American name to reflect his mixed heritage? Would he be embarrassed of his Korean name as I was as a child? Could I find a name that fits in America as well as in Korea?
I raised this topic with my mom on the phone the other day. We’re thinking of giving the baby a Korean middle name, I told her.
“What do you need a Korean name for?” she said. “We live in America now. Keep it simple. Just give him a name that’s easy to pronounce, that sounds good. Why not name him Jeff Jr.?”
It wasn’t the reaction I had expected. I thought she would be proud that I wanted to retain some connection to Korea for our baby. But maybe it was just sentimental jibberish to her.
But for me, the thought of handing my baby over completely to America, the culture in which I had to learn to make my home as a child, feels like cheating in some ways. Learning to live here, while treading the disparity between our origin in Korea and our present lives, has defined me in more ways than I can articulate. Many of the strands of life that have shaped me – and still remain flapping in various directions – stem from this disparity. Finding ways to interpret and accept our family’s differences. Negotiating my need to fit in with my peers with my parents’ values. Accepting that our family was here alone, with no extended relatives to help us in times of need. Appreciating the loneliness that seemed to hover over us at times.
I find these aspects of my life – my identity – hard to leave behind. I want to give them due credit, instead of moving on as if they never existed. And I want them to be acknowledged and remembered somehow. To account for our history – and our family’s struggles.
So I find myself walking around, sounding out names in my head, as I did as a 12-year-old child. Trying to come up with the right sounds, the right syllables, the right identity. And hoping that this time, it is for keeps.