Maybe I Should’ve Gotten an English Name.

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Unlike most Korean-American or Korean students in English-speaking country, I don’t have English name – like Sarah Lee, Jay Kim, and so on.  Sure, there was a time when I wanted one, because it looked fancy.  But then, for some reason, all the names I wanted to take were already taken by someone around me.  My name isn’t too hard to pronounce compared to many other Korean names, though I have to admit it’s always my name when DMV or local city hall admins screw up.  It worked fine in Japan, too (which I have to thank my grandfather, who named me).

Ironically, ever since I came back to South Korea, I start to think maybe I should’ve gotten an English name.  It seems like no matter how I “hint” or directly say to people that I grew up in the United States, not in California, New York or New Jersey where there are loads of Korean population, people don’t understand my upbringing, or why I behave in such a way.

I’ve ranted on my blog many times.  I don’t deny that I am Korean.  All I’ve been saying is that I grew up away from Korea, so please don’t frown upon me if I make a mistake.  It’s just that I don’t know and not used to, like blue-eyed foreigners they love.  But, for them, I HAVE to be 100% Korean.  After all, I look like Korean, with small eyes and dark hair, have Korean name, do not have foreign citizenship, have Korean parents, and – lo and behold – she speaks damn fine Korean, knowing the pop culture references and slangs!  Of course she HAS to be 100% Korean, just like us!

So while other foreigners are excused from dreadful, soju-bomb exploding 3-hours-long hweshik (roughly translated as “social drinking,” which is the most important ritual in Korean business culture – google it and you’ll get some idea), I have to go because I am “Korean.”

When other foreigners say they don’t want to join the forced drinking because of their personal preference/health/religion, they are fine.  When I say I can’t join the forced shot drinking because my body doesn’t process alcohol well and often causes 2-weeks-long rash all over my body, they think I’m either exaggerating or lying to get out, or being really rude.

When other foreigners say “I think this can be a problem,” they listen.  Or at least they pretend to listen.  When I say “I think this can be a problem,” all of sudden I’m a brat.

Here’s something I go through on a daily basis.  Few days ago, I was at my friend’s party.  There were some Korean guys on my table.  Naturally, we introduced each other and started talking (in Korean).

Guy 1: So where are you from?  Are you Korean American?
Me: I’m Korean but I grew up in States.
Guy2: Okay, so when did you go to the States?
Me: 13.
Guy1: Oh wow. But you speak really good Korean?
Me: Haha…well my parents are Korean?  And I came and go all the time?

Then another guy made some kind of joke with Korean pop reference.  Of course I understood so I laughed.  Then the guy looked pretty surprised.

Guy1: Oh so you know XXX? (The reference)
Me: well, yeah.
Guys: Oh then you are like full Korean!  Okay, we’re not worried then.

I don’t even try anymore.  It’s quiet common to see major newspaper articles here saying “this foreign person eats Kimchi well!!  He/She can take hot peppers too and soju!  With Korean spouse!  He/She is pure Korean!”

I wish the world is that simple.

Back to the name business,  sometimes I think if I had an English name, maybe it could have been worked as a convenient shield for me.  Upon me saying “hello, my name is Grace Lee” or something of that, then locals here would feel me more “foreign” and grant me more space and time.  Or, maybe it would’ve been better if I spoke far worse Korean than now.  Then I don’t even have to try.

If only people can understand how it’s okay for someone to be less than 100% Korean – or be a bit different from the rest.

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2 responses »

  1. Oh…..you get it. I’m on the complete opposite end of the spectrum, but feel the same way as an American. I’m completely 100% American, look it, speak it, etc. However, when I don’t get the references that the locals talk about or if I don’t know all the pop culture of the 90’s (because that was really when I lived overseas) I’m looked at like a 3-headed alien!! Seriously! Football is big here in the states and I don’t know a blessed thing about it! I don’t really care to know about it. So, when everybody is talking sports and who’s drafting who….I tune out.
    I often wished I could be half of something else and then at least I would have an excuse like you feel with having an English-type name. I have a lot of friends who are half American, half European or half American, half something else. They always have that other half to grasp onto and accept fully into their identity. Do you think people like us, who are fully from one country yet lived outside of that county and now live in our passport country, do you think we have a harder time with identity than other TCKs?

  2. I think it depends on the community/society you are living in, too. For instance Korea is pretty tough society to live on if you are different from majority. I just had a talk with a friend of mine who also spent a long time in the States and now going grad school in Korea. She complained how being herself – such as saying “I have something to do so I can’t do lunch today” when all her classmates are going to lunch together – makes other ppl thinking her as a “weird,” if not “above our head.” I completely understand it since I had a same experience. But yes, like you said, if I were half-white, the life here might be a bit easier for me. Not only I can be “different” legibly and also look different.
    And no, I’m not really on the opposite end of the spectrum so no worries!!! I am completely lost when it comes to recent Korean pop idols. And when I was in the States, I was completely lost when everyone started fuming about football (I don’t even know the rules) or NBA. I still am!

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