You’d think that having an American name would help someone like me assimilate better into American society. As a person of color from an immigrant family, I understand the struggle that comes with adapting to a new culture, one that has not been very accepting of people of color, so parents renaming their children becomes a tool for survival and belonging. But even with a name given to me by American culture, I am still seen as a foreigner.
My parents named me “Phoebe” after Phoebe Cates, a white American actress from the 80s. But there is no Korean character that resembles the phonetic English “F,” so in Korean, I don’t even exist. Whenever I see old relatives who only speak Korean, they can only call me “Pee-Bee,” and even when I sound out my name for them, the language barrier keeps us separated. I do have a Korean middle name that I’ll sometimes give to native Korean speakers, but it remains unused most of the time because I don’t have a connection to it. Honestly, I’m not even sure if I pronounce it correctly. As a Korean American who grew up around white people and never learned the language, I never felt particularly close to my family’s culture. With two names that make me feel foreign, I don’t feel like I belong anywhere I’m supposed to.
Even with an assimilated name, I still receive racist questions and have my name foreignized. When I was thirteen, a white man once tried to read my name. He claimed he didn’t know how to pronounce it and asked me if it was an “Asian name.” After I looked at him, puzzled, and a long pause had passed, he said, “Oh! ‘FEE-BEE’! Like from Friends.” He needed a white Phoebe to realize how to properly say my name. In other words, he needed her white ownership of the name in order to confirm my existence. Whenever anyone has to write or say my name, it gets mangled into exotic variations like “Febby,” “Fibi,” and “Fifi.” These unrecognizable errors reflect the disconnections I feel with American and Korean cultures. Only recently, I theorized that maybe people mishear, misspell and mispronounce my name because they don’t associate an abstractly “white” name with an Asian girl.
I have a name that should bring me closer to American culture, so why doesn’t it? My name derives directly from Hollywood, but when I wear it, it reads as foreign. In Korean, my name becomes a tool to distance me. But despite having a name that should define me as “an American,” I still worry about how it lets others racialize or see me.
Anxiety about my name has fed into internalized racism. I used to wish for a name that would transparently read as “American,” but as I grew older, I realized that it doesn’t matter if I identify as an American or Korean or what name I have because I’ll always be seen as a foreigner. Sometimes it feels like I don’t even own my name because it might belong to someone else who will look better with it. As long as others racialize you as “Other,” you might not ever feel like you belong, and people of color have to live with this discomfort and anxiety everywhere they go. There is no comfortable way to truly belong when you live in between two culture clashes.