Thursday, July 9, 2009

All in a Name

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.


  1. I know I've mentioned the similarity in our lives before, but here I go again. :)

    I attended PS 19 (2nd grade) and PS 13 (third grade) in New York, while living in Flushing (I believe -- maybe 13 was in Queens? Not sure, as my NYC geography is totally muddled now). My school was covered in graffiti and there was broken glass and cars all over our neighborhood, with no place to play. Our landlord lived above us, while my family of 5 lived in the first floor studio unit, and he would also come downstairs to yell if we made the smallest bit of noise.

    I moved to Philly at age 8, which felt like the suburbs in comparison, and I lived on a block where we did in fact ride our bikes around the block. :) My neighbor had an above-ground pool at her house, so we played there in the summers.

    When I was 12, I also chose an "American" name, one rife with i's I could dot with hearts and daisies: Kristie. Hee. I chose it because I was tired of people mispronouncing my name, Ei-Nyung.

    I actually was too shy and unassertive to tell people to call me by my new name, so only peers at my Korean church (who knew how to say my name in Korean anyway) called me Kristie, since I started attending it shortly before or after I decided on the new name.

    It never really stuck, so I went by Ei for a part of college, but got annoyed with it, then got called eingy, my username/email for the first 5 years of my work life, then started to really insist people use my full name, which is not really even spelled right for the Korean pronunciation anyway, given it's written as 으녕 which is an oddball variation on the much more common Korean name.

    And now, we are, of course, thinking of names for our baby boy. :) We just some time last night comparing out beginning lists. My husband, half-Finnish (his dad) and half-Japanese (his mom), chose to look at mostly Finnish names, which surprised me because he self-identifies slightly more with the Asian-American community, and I tried to come up with names that sound reasonable in both Korean and Japanese, yet has sounds that make sense in Finnish AND isn't too hard in English. It's... hard. :D

    I want him to be aware of his heritage and to be able to reflect his self-identity in the tag he presents to the world, yet I'm keenly aware that I am trying to pick this for him, rather than giving him his choice over the matter.

    I think if we go with a name that doesn't seem to reflect his Korean/Asian background at all, we will definitely have a Korean middle name. My last name will be thrown into the mix as well and my husband would really like to put his grandfather's name in somewhere too, so we are looking at a kid with potentially 5 names! Hahaha! Kind of hefty for one kid, but he only has to go by his first name or first & last for most of his life. :)

  2. We chose to name our sons in this way:
    - both sons 3 syllables & common-enough names only used as first names because of last name KIM- never wanted names like Connor or Harrison, so as to fend off them being called Kim Connor or Kim Harrison and being thought of as girls...; also wanted names that could switch between three syllables (my name) and one syllable (husband's).. thus: firstborn- Nathaniel & secondborn- Zachary aka Nate & Zach. Kind of crazy reasoning.
    MIDDLE #1
    - spanish names derived from my brother's first & middle names, to tie in our Mexican heritage
    MIDDLE #2
    - Korean generational names chosen by hubby's parents. The name thing that passes down each 14 generations, and husband's parents even had to call back to Korea to get the whole 411. Our kids' generational name is "___-Hong" so that was set, and in-laws chose what went in front of that.
    Hubby & I laugh to ourselves that while we did this traditional thing, cousins back in Korea didn't do it for their kids. :D Lol.
    -Of course, Kim.

    What helped in having so many names is that Mexicans can have lots of names (1 have 4 in my whole name, not 3) so, that ties in, too.

    Good luck! It's fun. :)


  3. Ahh...the importance of a name. It does define part of your identity for your entire life. Even though I don't have roots other than American (German/English/Native American way on back), my parents chose to spell my name differently. It is pronounced like Erin, but spelled Aryn. It has caused me all sorts of issues my whole life. My ethnic background was not tied up in it like yours, but I remember being annoyed that I couldn't find a cute keychain with my name on it and that people constantly misspelled and mispronounced it. Now, I am proud of it. Proud of the uniqueness.

    With our son, we chose to use family names. We are both very close to our brothers (each of us has only 1 sibling, a brother), so we went with their first names. Joshua Todd is his name. Joshua is my brother and Todd is my husband's brother. He goes by JT. I like to thing he carries each of them around with him everyday. And they were both bowled over by it.

  4. Again with the similarities! LOL! I changed my name to Emily when I was 12 but my family refused to acknowledge it. We were also going to move to Houston when I was in the 8th grade and I was excited about the possibility of using my new name in a place where no one knew me. That whole phase lasted a few months. Hubs and I have just stared thinking of names and we decided on an American first name to make it easier for her and an Indian middle name. It's been interesting though. I go back and forth. She'll have my husband's last name so should we give her an Indian first name to reflect both backgrounds? These are the things I keep turning over in my head.

  5. Happy to catch up on your blog and read that your pregnancy is progressing so well.

    There is so much power in a word and consequently in a name, especially the name of your baby which you will pronounce with more frequency than any other word for a significant time to come.

    In the Judeo and then later in the Judeo-Christian tradition a name is linked to the individual's destiny and is given with an express purpose to describe an individual's hoped destiny or characteristics.

    I named my daughter Anna because of its meaning and because of the association of this name with my grandmother on my mother's side, who was one of my most influential role models growing up. Anna is a Latin version of the Hebrew name Hannah which means lovely, graceful, favorable. So every time I call out my daughter's name, I unintentionally speak words of blessing over her life.

    I named my son Tudor, a Romanian variant of Theodore, which in Greek means gift of God. (Theo means God and dor means gift. The Latin word adore has its origins in the Greek dor, and means to pray to or to revere deeply). So when I pronounce Tudor, I acknowledge that he is a gift from God and hope that he will become a lover of God.

    These names also happen to go well with my very unusual and complicated last name, which is not a factor to be dismissed.

    Happy thinking....

  6. Great post, and I'm so glad you're enjoying your pregnancy!

    I'm Korean (named Christine!), and my husband is a blend of English/Irish. We named our first son after my husband's grandfather and let my mom pick a Korean middle name. That worked out really well, so for our second child, we picked another sturdy old English name with a Korean middle name. They have their daddy's last name, so I'm glad their middle names reflect their heritage. If we have a girl, I would consider giving her a Korean first name, though. I'm not sure why I feel that way--maybe it's a backlash against all the Haylees and Caylees out there...

  7. It is simple.

    Just try out names. Bounce them back and forth between the two of you and see what you like.

    Even before we knew we were having a girl my husband and I started trying out boy and girl names. We tossed a couple of girls and boys names around and one day we came upon what ultimately ended up being her name. We both loved it, couldn't get past it to anything else, nothing else sounded or felt right. And at that time we couldn't to save our lives come up with a boys name we could both agree on, not even a Jr. Much to our surprise, weeks later, when we learned we were having a girl it was easy because we already had her name.

    You will know when you have come upon the right name. It will stick, you won't be able to come up with anything better, and it will feel right.

  8. I went to PS 163 in Flushing and then to IS 237 where we merged with all the kids from PS 20 and PS 120.

    My mother now live about 10 blocks away from Cardozo in Bayside, so I feel the familiarity of the places you write about in NY.

    My sisters were given Korean names and then they chose American names after we immigrated. As for me, my parents knew we were moving to America so they picked an American name for me first, then gave me a Korean name that sounded similar to it. When I was younger I always felt a little like I was cheated out of a "real" Korean name... something that sounded totally different from my American name. I I wanted to have two names like every other Asian kid I knew. I think it was because I wanted something to show how I was Korean AND American as opposed to Korean American -- that there were two parts to me.

    I appreciate my name now mostly because it was my father who picked it out and he passed away when I was 18, so it's something I have from him. But I haven't thought about the naming process for when I start having kids. And like Nowadayz said in her post, one thing I do know is that with my husband's last name being Kim, I would want something commonly used as first names.

    Have fun! :)

  9. I forwarded this post on to my boyfriend to read because I think you did a great job of explaining the same cultural identify issues I struggled with as a child and, to some extent, continue to deal with as an adult. I'm first generation American, born to Russian-Jewish immigrants. My boyfriend, who I hope to marry, is as American as they come.

    Growing up, I just wanted to be a normal, American girl who ate American food (no borscht!) and had a last name that could easily be pronounced.

    Now, as I get closer to one day having my own family, I find it painful to think that my child may not understand that he or she has a rich, Russian background. I feel that I would be cheating by going "all American," I would be disregarding my upbringing, and I would be offending my family. So, as I think about my babies-to-be, I like to think about the "ethnic" spins I could put on more American names, and I've already thought about how this baby-to-be may learn to speak both Russian and English.

  10. We are now in week 31 and we still don't have anything close to a name! Not even an in-utero nickname! Hehe.

    We did, however, just take an infant CPR, which was great. September is full of childbirth classes. Eek! :)