Another topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time.
I can’t remember the exact details, but my parents used to tell me that my Dad’s trusted mentor (who was also his PhD dissertation supervisor) and longtime family friend gave me my Korean name. To put succinctly, my name refers to the brightness of both a full moon and intelligence (Ex. “What a bright child!”). All in all, a positive meaning. I think there was more significance then because names in my parents’ generation were Chinese (Korean names with Chinese characters), whereas mine was pure Korean. If you are confused by this explanation, I am a bit too; it’s hard to explain and I am not the best person to clearly articulate this. Anyway, in a society where parents were starting to think of English names for their children (due to the spike in interest of English language acquisition), this was a big deal. Not to mention that having an important individual in your life naming your kid? Another big deal. **I don’t actually recall meeting this man, although apparently he held me a few times after I was born.
I liked my name growing up and even found the nicknames endearing. Since my name refers to the brightness of the moon, I had a few astrological related nicknames given to me which I honestly didn’t mind at all. I didn’t think much of my name and the negative connotation of a full moon in western culture until I moved to the US.
My three syllable Korean name was hyphenated so that it became two. I remember distinctly how I entered the second grade classroom of a dominantly Black and Latino classroom in Lynn, Massachusetts, where the teacher seemed to be overwhelmed by the names we were telling her to write on the board for “Learn your friends’ names day.” I recited off the names of my best friends, but she was puzzled and skipped over me. Oh, the 90s. I was one of two Asian kids in the entire K-12 school. Funny to think that now, the classroom would (hopefully) be a lot more diverse and names like “Jing” and “Muhammad” would be common, not rare.**Yes, I purposely chose stereotypical names there to demonstrate a point.
On and on it went. I hated the first day of school every year. As if I wasn’t nervous enough that I wasn’t wearing the right glasses, shoes, or ATTIRE (**I definitely was NOT wearing the right attire) for that matter, I had to simultaneously decide how I would handle the attention I would get when the teacher mispronounced my name (100% likelihood). The typical scene would usually go like this:
Teacher: “On to the L last names, then! Francesca! Abby! Bo…Bo??”
Me: *cringe in seat* “Here.” *ignore stares and snickers*
It happened every year. “Hey, I remember your name from seventh grade because it was just…weird sounding,” a two-year crush said to me in middle school, making me die inside. “I heard your name and I cringed because it sounded so…masculine,” a ‘friend’ commented in college after attending a training together. It didn’t help that the first part of my name was a man’s name. “I agree with what he said on the last post,” another student wrote in an online discussion forum for class. “I’m a girl,” I indignantly typed back, ignoring the discussion points. “Is Bo coming over for dinner?” my high school boyfriend’s mom texted him once. Even they couldn’t exert the effort to say my name. There was no escape. I will spare you from the endlessly creative nicknames, raps, and spinoffs my name inspired. None were particularly brutal, just embarrassment inducing.
There were a few instances though, where I would sink in my seat, expecting the teacher to ask me for the correct pronunciation of my name, except….the teacher would get it right. My friends and I would look at each other and smile in surprise. I would breathe normally again. And on my birthday, when the principal wished me a happy birthday on the intercom AND said my name correctly (she did that for all the students at school). It wasn’t all bad.
During the years when AIM (**for all the bbs of this generation, Instant Messaging) was the new thing, I chatted to strangers online with friends in the same room (we were fascinated by this technology) and I claimed my name as Claire. My friend suggested Claire after finding out that the name also means “bright.” I used Claire as an alias consistently from then on.
I used to think that if I appeared insanely attractive, then my “un-feminine” and weird name could be dismissed. Since the struggle to pronounce my name inevitably brought attention, maybe other people would look at me and at least think I’m….pretty. I went to college parties with friends, and guys would ask for our names. “Sarah……Alice…..Cindy….” friends would say, while I would mumble, knowing there was absolutely no way a drunk guy would try to say my name right or hear me in the hazy uproar. “Caroline.” a guy said in response to my numerous attempts at telling him my name. “Got it. Nice name.” He reached out to grab my hand to get more drinks, but I left the party. I didn’t feel attractive that night. Also, my name sounded nothing like Caroline.
Towards the latter half of my freshmen year, my family became naturalized US citizens. With the citizenship letter came a petition form to change names. My brother luckily did not have to make amendments to his name. It was already acceptable and easy to pronounce. My parents added American first names and tacked their Korean ones as middle names. They suggested I do the same, and I agreed. I chose Claire. A few weeks after the change, I went to the eye clinic for new contacts. The receptionist noted my name change. “Nice choice,” she said. “Your old one was unique, but painful.” What does that even mean?
I had been dreaming to have a name I felt comfortable with for years. I did not particularly want to be called Claire, but I didn’t want to be known as my Korean name, either, at least, not in the US. I insisted to friends and work colleagues that I was told to adopt a new name by my parents, but it was ultimately my decision. “Your first name is Claire? So weird. Not you.” a college friend emailed back after seeing my official signature. “I can NEVER call you Claire,” my best friend told me. But, why? In high school, even the nicest girl on Earth (she was friends with everybody) choked from laughter when saying my name. Was it really that funny that she had to laugh? My old name just provoked too much hassle.
When I went to Korea, asking to be called Claire was not even a question. It was obvious I was a Korean-American teacher who could speak Korean, and I wanted the students to NOT know that at all costs. Students and staff called me “Claire Teacher.” Friends in Korea called me Claire. I saw my Alien Registration Card printing off the Immigration Office in Korea. “Claire,” it read, in romanized Korean. It looked foreign.
My middle school best friend visited me in Korea, and I was worried how she would perceive the new name. She only knew me by my Korean name. She called me Claire in front of my new friends. I Skyped with my best friends and they called me by Korean name, which made me halt for a few seconds, because I forgot that was who I was.
I introduced myself as Claire in the UK. I send off letters to friends to different places in the world, but I have to double check that I am signing my name as Claire for friends I met in Argentina, Korea and the UK, and as my Korean name for friends in the US. I don’t know how to resolve the two identities.