Say my name

A lot of my friends and colleagues don’t know that I have two names. Everyone knows me as Jamie, because that is my legal first name given to me by my father. But my Korean name is Heesoo, written in Chinese characters as “extraordinary woman”, and was given to me by my grandfather, who lived through the Korean War and Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula in the early 20th century.

I don’t introduce myself as Heesoo to anyone unless they are from Korea or my family elders. After I began my career, however, I started to wish my legal name was Heesoo because no one seems to be able to spell Jamie correctly- sometimes, people pronounce it incorrectly as well. As for my last name, Hwang, I’ve heard it mis-pronounced in every way possible.

Wang – wong – hang -wang -I’m-Not-Even-Going-To-Try*

Both of my names are androgynous, and while working remotely I began to really notice how people assume I am a male because of my first name and because there is an assumption that political staffers are males.

My names represent the duality that has followed me my entire life. It’s something that sets immigrant families apart from multi-generational American families who have fully assimilated. Having two names signals someone has had to give up one home to find a new one. One night after dinner, my parents talked about how American immigrants all suffer an unspoken trauma from assimilation and isolation. They talked about how hard it is to live in a foreign place without any friends or speaking the language. Then they asked me if I ever struggled to live in America because of my Asian background.

I was surprised and initially frustrated- the question brought forth a rush of childhood experiences of being the only Asian student in classrooms, being told to eat my smelly lunches alone, and spending my early adult years patiently enduring being the token Asian person in organizations, work spaces, and social situations.

And then I was embarrassed and humbled as I realized that I do not fully understand my parents’ trauma because I have been so burdened by my own experiences. Then I felt waves of gratitude and pride because this conversation means our family has made it to a place where we can talk about, recognize, and share our narratives.

Does it make it easier to understand our parents if we share a common tongue? Or do we set up barriers, like re-naming ourselves so we appear more American, to make it easier for others to accept us, and end up losing what we had in common at all?

*Hwang is typically pronounced “hw-ahng” and rhymes with song. This is a common Chinese last name as well, but should not be confused with Wong or Song. Also, if you don’t know how to pronounce someone’s name, just ask! Please don’t tell us you won’t bother trying. It signals you don’t want to bother trying to know who we are.

2 responses to “Say my name”

  1. As someone who did the opposite of your musing – changing my legal name from one given to me by my grandpa, to an English name that’s easier to pronounce – I thought about this too. Am I abandoning my origin for easier assimilation? Never in a million years when I was a child in Korea did I imagine that I would reach adulthood with a different identity and nationality.

    In a world that continues to integrate diverse societies and backgrounds, stories like yours and mine will become increasingly common. What I came to realize is that I am not abandoning my background and diminishing the sacrifices my parents made by living my life in an “American” way. Culture is ever-evolving, and I’m adding a bold new pattern to the tapestry of my, my parents, their parents, and so on’s story.

  2. I agree- as long as we understand our story, our roots, and honor our family tree by passing down this information, we won’t be lost! This year, I’m going to try to record as many relatives’ names as possible. I actually don’t know my grandparents’ full names by heart, and I want to have that information for my children and grandchildren some day.

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