The Power of Names

I am rarely someone who puts my opinion online or offer my opinion publicly when events are in motion, unless it’s with the very closest of friends. Oftentimes, I broach the topic to hear others’ opinions… because I never felt like I had much to offer or anything new to add. But this summer has got me thinking a lot about something that may seem minute but it has taken ahold of me and I’ve only now recognized how important it is to me: my name.

My name is, first and foremost, 김다은. That’s in the Korean language. It’s the name gifted to me from my grandmother, meaning “warmthful love.” Coming to America at the age of 10 months old, not even a year old, my parents attempted to romanize my name, which brings us to Da Eun Kim. Of course when I was younger, I was not self-conscious about my name, and when I was living in Texas, I was surrounded by a community of family friends who were also all Korean. So there was never any trouble in saying my name. But after I moved to New York and started going through elementary school, I began to realize that my name was difficult to pronounce. In the hope of not attracting too much attention to myself, I went ahead and manipulated the way I pronounced my name to DAH-OON so that it was easier to roll off the tongue for people who spoke English. Not only that, but I couldn’t bear to have people stare at me in confusion and contempt when I tried to introduce myself. And in my new New York school, there were 2 other Asian Americans and they were also Korean. But the biggest difference between me and them was that they were born in America and given English names as well as Korean names from birth. I was left with just Da Eun.

Needless to say, I spent much of my childhood pouring myself over books and reading about the Mirandas and Sarahs and Lucilles and just wishing for myself that I could have an English name. And the most dreaded question to this day for me is: “What’s your name?” In elementary school, I got a myriad of responses similar to this:

“What’s your name?”

“Da Eun.”

“…uh what?”

“Da Eun.”

“…how do you spell that?”

I get this response still, even after trial and error of me trying to figure out the best way to say my name without departing too much from the actual name while desperately hoping that people can pronounce this romanized name in one try. As I have gotten older, it has definitely gotten better to an extent. I don’t get looks of disgust and confusion, and I’ve grown a thicker skin in braving through those conversations where I’m asked to repeat my name 5 times.

But it really doesn’t just end here.

In high school, I was incredibly fond of the teachers I had, especially in the STEM field. While English and history were not my strong suits and I for the most part dreaded writing coherent papers, math and chemistry and science were solvable in my book. I never hesitated to raise my hand to ask questions and participate. Those were also spaces where I found myself getting courage to speak up and occasionally question the answers and explanations teachers gave me. I thought I felt mutual respect.

One day in the middle of May, less than a month away from the end of the school year, I was doing my work in one of my science classes, taught by one of my favorite teachers. I’ve gone on errands for her and I have been able to talk to her about things other than school. That day, she looked up at me, looking a little confused, and said “Da Eun, can you bring me that book at the back of the room?” Everything about this question was normal, except for my name. DAY-OON, she said. For a split second, I was shocked. How could my favorite teacher, who I talk to every single day, in the classroom where I talk to my friends all the time and they say my name… miss my name? At the end of the school year? She’s pronounced it fine this entire time, why now? For the rest of year, I kept mental note of how many times she would call my name. She said my name only two more times, but both times it was DAY-OON. I wasn’t necessarily frustrated or angry, I was just flustered because this was the first time anything like this had happened. It was a situation where you would think you’ve gotten past this big obstacle of introducing yourself with a name that should be romanized enough to be pronounced that you can move on and nurture that relationship further… but I felt like I was back at square 1, except I had already had this connection with this person FOR A YEAR. I didn’t do much about it, but as you can see, I still have that memory to this day, 7 years later.

NOTE: By high school, I had moved to California and I went to a school that was predominantly white, but there was a good percentage of Asian students. I actually lived in a neighborhood of all Korean families, and many of the girls were in my year. The common narrative I would hear from those girls was how they would be talking to a classmate and they would mention me, but the classmate would have no idea who they were talking about, something like:

“Yeah, I think 다은 is taking this class!”

“Who?”

“DAH-OON”

“Oh! Cool!”

Luckily, these girls had caught on that I completely mispronounce my name just to make it remotely easier for non-Koreans to pronounce my name, and they would readjust immediately depending on who they talked to, but it also gave me this pretense that oh, only Koreans will ever be able to pronounce my name correctly or care to.

Now comes college. I still went through this motion of introducing myself as DAH-OON and it for the most part went off without a hitch. Winter quarter of freshmen year, I was mainly hanging out with 3 guys in my freshmen dorm. Jokes were always being had, and it was overall a group that I genuinely had a lot of fun with. One day, I came back from class and met up with the 3 guys, and one of them looked at me really seriously and said,

Can you teach me how to pronounce your name correctly? I know that you must be saying it wrong so that it’s easier for me to say it, but I genuinely want to learn the correct way.

I originally brushed it away, saying “oh no, it’s totally fine, I don’t mind at all.” But then the other two hopped in, saying that they wanted to learn. After maybe 5 minutes of repeating my name over and over again, I thought to myself “It’s whatever, they’ll probably forget how to say it, and that’s still fine.”

To my surprise, for the next three weeks, each one of them would stop me when they’d see me down the hall, and they’d repeat my name multiple times and wouldn’t stop until I told them that was the right pronunciation. And to this day, those 3 guys now say my name. My true name. 다은. And while I couldn’t have said it then, I can say now how I want to thank them for taking my name seriously.

Fast forward to this summer when I was interning. I still haven’t gotten rid of the habit of calling myself DAH-OON but again, for the most part, people are able to say this fine. I felt mostly supported, especially as a woman in tech, and I know that’s not what many people get to say. Halfway through my internship, I found myself in a biweekly meeting and by this time, all of the interns’ names had been added to the agenda for the part of the meeting where we go around the room talking about our upcoming tasks. The meeting is led by the person who usually reviews my code after my host, so I would say that a relationship had been established by this point where I could ask him for help and we could make small talk. But when it came time for the interns to speak, he said, “Okay DAY-YOON, what are you up to this week?” A jolt ran through me, kind of like deja vu, because this was so similar to what had happened to me years ago in the science classroom. Like…really? Again? After the meeting, I sort of sat in my chair in a daze, replaying that moment. It might seem like a small little detail, but what was eating away at me was that this summer, I had come in with the mindset of wanting to do my contribution of creating a more inclusive workspace. I made it a challenge for myself of where if I saw or heard any sort of microaggression toward coworkers, I wanted to say something for them if they couldn’t say anything themselves. I had been thinking along the lines of racial or gender-related microaggressions that I always read about in those Medium articles. But here I was, dazed and upset with myself for not being able to stop the meeting lead for a second and say, “it’s pronounced 다은.” And you know why I couldn’t bring myself to say that? Because I was afraid that I would be rude to interrupt the meeting to correct him. I can’t even begin to explain how much that ate away at me for the rest of the summer, every time he said my name in that biweekly meeting, completely butchered.

And you know what sucks even more? The fact that I thought I was right for thinking it would be rude of me to correct him. I didn’t fully realize how harmful that mindset was for myself until I grabbed lunch with a coworker for the first time near the end of my internship, and the first thing he said to me was, “I’m sorry, but am I saying your name correctly?” My immediate reaction was relief. Relief that it wasn’t so crazy for me to hope that people would want to pronounce my name correctly. And when I say correctly, I mean the way I had romanized my name to DAH-OON, so NOT EVEN THE REAL TRUE PRONUNCIATION 다은.

Okay but what is the whole point of all of this?

I’m not saying I expect people to pronounce 다은 correctly. It’s a hard name to pronounce and it does not even come from the English language. I’m not saying I expect people to all act like my 3 friends from freshmen year who spent time in their day to pronounce it correctly. I’m not.

But I want to shed light that something as simple as your name… can hold so much power and influence over the person, and it is in fact an issue that many immigrants and minorities face. We are now in a time where we talk about recognizing gender pronouns and slowly institutions are following suit, where people make memes about Starbucks baristas not being able to spell “Katie” correctly (okay but seriously, imagine my name with 3 consecutive vowels and a space in between. I can’t even begin to tell you how many emails I get that say “Da” even if I make sure to leave the Middle Name field blank on forms). And I guess on top of that, I just find that something I’ve been missing and something I wish someone said to me was that “Your name is valuable and it is literally your identity. It is LITERALLY how you present yourself.” It’s an experience that so many marginalized groups have, of training themselves to mispronounce their own names enough just for teachers and peers who are not bilingual to not look down at their names and think they’re weird. It’s an experience that many people in this country have where no matter how many different ways they try to say their name, people still mispronounce it no matter what and will never bother to ask again how to pronounce your name correctly, or worse, they make jokes about your name. It’s an experience where many people must second-guess themselves and their true pronunciation, because they’re afraid of coming off as too sensitive about their name or too pretentious. But why should they be?! It’s their name! It is their identity! It is the name that their loving parents and grandparents have given them at birth, and it is the name that in many ways holds centuries of heritage and history from the land that they left to have better lives in “the land of opportunity.” They should not feel shameful for having a non-Anglo Saxon name and for not “conforming” to Western standards of names. They should not have to second guess themselves and be flooded with the internal monologue of “how should I pronounce my name this time?” every time they have to make an introduction. If you have not felt these feelings or sentiments, that probably means you have a privilege that truthfully thousands of Americans do not have.

But wait, hold up. This isn’t meant to be a message of “make sure you’re saying all of your friends’ names right and ask them repeatedly!” I think at the very least, be respectful if someone corrects you on their name and remember that a name, being just a few scribbles on paper, is still a name and their identity.

I would tell my younger self “Don’t be ashamed of your name. In fact, this should push you to learn more about your heritage and the beautiful history and background that you come from. Be proud that you are Asian American, Korean American. Be proud that you’re Da Eun Kim.”

And if you do have a friend who has a “foreign”/”non-Anglo Saxon” name, maybe one day try asking them what their name means. You may learn something new about your friend.

*Don’t even get me started on the discrimination/stereotyping that happens with a “foreign” name. I have been assumed to be an international student (I am a US citizen), I have been assumed to not know English, and the list can go on…and I am even lucky to have only faced this. This conversation is for a later time, but for now this video does a good job of putting everything in context.

*I can only speak to my personal experience and I do not mean to speak on behalf of any group I do not identify with.

*If you have similar stories like this, please share with me! I would love to hear your narrative and how you’ve tried to overcome this obstacle.

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The Power of Names

One thought on “The Power of Names

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. This is why I named my son Trevor Yeojae so he has a name for the two nations he belongs to: the United States and South Korea. I also have an English name and Korean name and followed my Korean family tree, using a 돌림자 when making my son’s Korean name as my father did for me and my grandfather did for my father. If you choose an English name, that’s even better because you can choose your own English name and you can still take pride in your Korean name. After all, Harvard is pronounced 하버드 in Korean and the Korean pronunciation is terrible because there’s no V sound in Korean, but every Korean knows what that means, the best university in the world.

    Like

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