On my first day of school in second grade, Mr. Sharp asked my mother, Mrs. Kim, to come inside his classroom to ask if she had any questions. My mother shook her head no, and she left hastily. I was too afraid Mr. Sharp wouldn’t let me into the classroom if I corrected his pronunciation. Yet, I yelled her name to myself, with a great blast of the ‘ook-’ from the tongue touching my upper mouth to sudden discharge, trilling my mouth wide for the abrupt blow of ‘Kyo-,’ followed by the long and deliberate stroke of ‘-ung,’ So-ook-Kyoo-ung! The sonorous syllables slipped through my teeth effortlessly. How could anyone chirp the yodeling sound of ‘Sookkyoung’ with one flick of a tongue?
To my new neighbors, my mother was Missus Soo-ok. To our landlord, my mother was Soog-young. To the store cashier, my mother was Soo-hook-young. Hearing Americans mispronouncing my mother’s name overwhelmed my ears as if a cold wind slapped against my head; these incoherent syllables jumbling into somewhat of my mother’s name made me question my hearing, arguing if I should correct them or not. But my mom claimed it didn’t matter. I couldn’t understand my mom; I mean, who would like to hear themselves called out for a wrong name, or even worse, a mispronounced name for the rest of their lives?
I stood in front of the classroom door, took a deep breath, and opened the door with a firm swing. As I entered the classroom, I noticed all the gazes in the room suddenly pointed at me; the flood of attention was pouring into my eyes uncontrollably. I could taste my tongue in my mouth bitter. I could feel each fiery heartbeat pulsing upon my chest. My head dropped down instantaneously.
Maneuvering my way out of the cubbies after dropping off my backpack, I sat down in the nearest blue plastic chair that was available. As I looked to the right, I could still see classmates glancing over me with alien eyes, so I faced away from them and turned my head the opposite way. As I looked to the left, however, I noticed multiple posters adorned the classroom wall with colorful drawings and fancy decorations, and, in the middle, their individual names written in thick, black sharpie. Max, Elizabeth, Julian, Nathan, Hannah, Caleb, …, the posters read.
“Hey class, we got a new kid today!” Mr. Sharp said in his upbeat, comedic energy.
“Can you tell us your name and one interesting thing about yourself?”
I stood up out of my chair and scanned the whole room before talking. Classmates were still staring at me like I was an anomaly. I took a deep breath and started.
“… My name is Jae-Hyun, and I like…”
“Wait, what was your name again?” One classmate questioned, but I could see him jokingly giggle over me.
“It’s Jae-Hyun. You pronounce it Jae-Hyu-eun.”
“So, you say it like Jay-Hun?” Another classmate blurted, mimicking my Asian accent. They started chuckling a bit.
“No, Max, I think it should be Jauu-Hung.” Somebody murmured out of nowhere, with a full-blown Chinese accent while pronouncing my name. The whole class flipped and soon burst into laughter.
“That’s enough! Stop making fun of him; he is going to be part of the class for the year. Jae-Hyun, you can sit down now.” Mr. Sharp scolded the class with his unusual ear-splitting voice. The silence hit the room like a brick wall.
I was quivering; disappointment and embarrassment took over me just as quickly as my name fades into oblivion in our class. All the confidence that I had embraced before coming to school vanished precipitously. I found myself wishing that I had an alternative name — a truly American name — so that I wouldn’t be perceived as an ‘exotic, bizarre’ Asian kid ‘who uses weird Chinese names.’ But I had one name, the only name that I’m proud to say: Jae-Hyun.
I thought ‘who I am’ — my charming character— was what would’ve made me introduced to other classmates, what would’ve mattered.
But it didn’t matter. They didn’t see any of my true self; instead, they insisted on my inherited name to define ‘who I am.’
Although I inscribed my name poster displayed on the classroom wall as Jae-Hyun with long and callous strokes of sharpie with black and dense ink, I was Jay or Jesse at school,and one time the substitute teacher mistook me as Jesaiah. It took a while to get familiar with my different names.
By the time I turned into a third-grader, friends had called me Jesse or Hey Jess, and I was genuinely Jae-Hyun only to my mother and father and brothers and relatives who would come over to eat 된장찌개(1) and 삼겹살(2) occasionally on Saturday nights. My initial ambition to be known by my proper Korean name had faded faraway. I just wanted to be Jesse to blend with Calebs and Julians and Nathans in our class. Shame burned through my spine whenever they would single me out as a ‘foreigner,’ an odd, exotic Asian friend from a random country tens of thousands of miles away. However, my skin coloring, facial features, and accent were a dead giveaway.
“So, where are you from, Jesse?”
“From Asia,” I answered ambiguously, because I assumed no one would know where my home country is.
“Where in Asia? Are you from China?”
“No,” I shook my head, “From South Korea.”
“South Korea? Where is that?”
“South of North Korea.”
I understood; they were just curious about me. However, an uneasy feeling started to settle on my chest. Once it was locked into place, it shuddered in protest to being pulled back. It grew larger in size and weight with every second to the point where I could deny no longer; I was ashamed of my origin.
“Really? Then do you have a Korean name?”
There was an irrepressible silence forming around me. I took a deep breath.
(1) 된장찌개: Korean traditional soup
(2) 삼겹살: Korean traditional BBQ