I never considered myself to be so attached to my Korean identity until the moment I was filing my N-400 application for U.S. citizenship and had to return to that remaining question: Would you like to legally change your name? My gut told me ‘no’ with a feverish conviction as if I were cutting off an umbilical cord to the past eighteen years of my life, presuming the death of my Korean heritage.
“Minjae” has been my name always and forever. How could I change it now?
Nothing made me more meek as a child than when I stood beside my mother in public. Walking with assertion, her feet spring with each step, her short curls toss in the air, and her chin is held high — a countermeasure against demeaning microaggressions: I will not bow my head to you. I am not afraid to be here!
My mom’s American name is Rena, but she will always tell you it’s ‘heebeh.’ And in response, the lady sitting at the front desk or the store clerk or whoever will confuse their ears with their eyes and open them wider. My mother will sigh with impatience and hand me the reins, and I will spell out her Korean name: Hee Bae.
After ten years living in America, my mom still finds no reason to bother learning English, and she is content. I think my constant teasing over the years about her jumbled sentences or her pompous walk has bowed her head — she now smiles timidly, laughs politely and says “sorry” and “thank you” to an indifferent barista. I have softened her into the picture of a sweet and harmless immigrant. I wish I hadn’t.
Maybe I hoped to bend my mother into roles which I imagined could seamlessly weave us into the rest of the American fabric.
At twelve, I walked out of libraries holding books which transformed me into a depressed, wealthy private schoolboy by the name of Holden Caulfield. Even now, I imagine myself with a cigarette in hand, classic brown loafers adorning my feet and black liner smeared across my eyes, just like Margot Tenenbaum.
Lara Jean, a bright and clumsy Korean-American girl proclaiming her love for a white boy in “To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before” does not strike a chord in me, despite the distant pride I feel in seeing an Asian American actor play a lead role in a romcom. Watching a Korean immigrant family move into Arkansas in search of their American Dream story in “Minari” feels oddly unfamiliar compared to watching a Black classical pianist in the Jim Crow South in “Green Book.” But perhaps those half-baked media representations are unsettling, like someone has ripped pages out of my diary and revealed it for the world to see.
I molded my persona not just from fictional characters, but real life ones, too. In middle school, I remember imitating Instagram photos of prepubescent white girls in bikinis and craning my neck to peer at the logo imprints on shopping bags they carried. I scrambled for a vacant seat among pale skin, blue eyes and yellow locks like it was a mad dash for a musical chair.
When I moved from Arizona and settled into a town in New Jersey with a dense Asian American population, I felt bitter toward the small posse of girls who had relocated from Korea, whispering secrets in class in their mother language and not bothering to mix with others. I did not listen to K-pop or watch K-dramas even as my white peers became obsessive BLACKPINK stans. It was my own insecurities which told me: whiteness is superior.
I look back at my high school years and feel as though a part of my heart has to be rotten from hating my own people and hating myself for hating my own people.
I feel like a coward thinking about how, at the age of eighteen, uttering my own name, Minjae, makes my stature shrink and the tails of my sentences crawl back inside of me. The syllables of my name search for shelter from the vulnerability of being spoken in front of my white peers who might no longer care, or at least are old enough to know not to bully me anymore.
My brother changed his name from Donghyun to David on his U.S. citizenship application last year. Though his reasons included the appealing opportunity to step an extra foot into American society, he was explicit about the inconvenience and discomfort he felt having to correct all of the various mispronunciations of his name.
Minari actor Youn Yuh-Jung dedicated a portion of her Oscar speech to highlighting this shared experience: “As you know I am from Korea, and my name is Yuh-Jung Youn, and most European people call me Yuh-young, and some of them call me Yoo-jung, but tonight you are all forgiven.”
After shedding a name my grandma selected, my brother tells me that he regrets his decision. In part, it’s because changing names on multiple legal documents was troublesome. But mostly, he feels as though he has erased our grandma’s careful choosing from 20 years ago, and with that, erased his ethnic heritage.
For Asian immigrants, the practice of anglicizing names began as a measure against racism and xenophobia when they first came to the United States in a major wave in the late 1800s. Marian Smith, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services historian, writes, “Any change that might smooth their way to the American dream was seen as a step in the right direction.”
So great was the pressure to assimilate and survive between 1900 and 1930 that, “about 86% of all boys and 93% of all girls born to immigrants had an American name.” Now, a century later, it is uncommon for third and fourth generation immigrants to hold an Asian name at all.
The immigrant’s assimilation into America is regarded with such high esteem that, my mom tells me, wealthy parents in Korea send their preschool children to “American” schools where they are required to adopt an American name and converse only in English. It is with pride that wealthy Koreans can afford to become “white” and live among white people.
Jay Caspian Kang, author of “The Loneliest Americans,” writes: “We know, at least subconsciously, that the identity politic of the modern, assimilated Asian American is focused on getting a seat at the wealthy white liberal table.” Moreover, “We want our children … to have the spoils of full whiteness.”
The advantages of using an American name are ever-present: A 2016 research study found that “whitened” resumes are twice as likely to produce job callbacks. Some acts are more overt; an Asiana Airlines plane crash in 2013 prompted what KTVU news station considered to be a joke, reporting incorrect names of four pilots: “Sum Ting Wong, Wi Tu Lo, Ho Lee Fuk, and Bang Ding Ow.” Michelle Go’s death last month was a reminder of the collective grief Asian Americans have felt in the rise of anti-Asian violence since COVID-19.
Yet, as multiculturalism becomes more widespread, I am hopeful of possibilities of creating an identity, and choosing a name, with less fear and more intention. Should we continue to use American names with ethnic names residing in the background? Or have we second generation immigrants walked too far into the second half of “Korean-American” to now reverse pedal back to original intent? How much of “Korean” is left in Korean-American? And should I reclaim it before it is too late?
What I’ve realized for now is that I have spent far too long constructing an identity built on shame, denial and disgust.
Too much have I felt, internalized and been molded by the white gaze. I have checked off “Asian American” on legal documents without so much as a second thought, and my Asian heritage has only played a role in my identity through my visceral reactions against it.
I am ready to embrace my Korean heritage with an open mind and an open heart — if not for myself, then for my parents, who did not have the freedom to consider their place in America with seriousness. To listen to my Korean friend’s K-pop song suggestions with an open ear, to catch a reflection of myself in Korean-American stories and to learn to love every part of myself and my identity.
Would you like to legally change your name? My answer is no; my Korean name will live forever on my legal documents. But whether I will continue to use Lily or Minjae as my preferred name is a question which I will continue to contemplate.
Statement Contributor Lily Kwak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.