I’ve always loved the story of how my Uncle Wilson chose his name. It only took a few months of living in America before he realized white people could never get “Woo Jin” right. The “W” always came out too harsh and their tongues would flop sloppily around the J – too loose to capture that sound somewhere in between a “Ch” and a “J.” Sometimes, he would correct them, slowly unfurling each syllable, careful to tap his tongue against the roof of his mouth just right. It never seemed to help, and he couldn’t tell whether it was for lack of trying on their part, or the English language itself to blame, its letters and sounds unable to reconcile themselves with his Korean ones.
In any case, he needed a new name. An American one, easy to pronounce and able to sit quietly among all the others on his teacher’s attendance sheet. He was only nine and still incapable of stringing together a proper sentence in English, but he decided to take matters into his own hands.
My mom describes this part the best: how one day they walked the two miles home from school like always – their parents were too busy in their dry cleaning store to pick them up like the other families did – and Uncle Wilson marched into the two-room apartment, his small mouth fixed in determination. He headed straight for the drawer where my grandparents kept their dictionary, one of those ones with examples under every word that showed how they should be used in a sentence. Tom rowed his boat. Sarah combed her hair. My mom says he didn’t flip through its pages, just cracked its blue spine over and over, opening and closing the book until it landed on a page with a name that finally caught his eye.
It was Wilson, and it didn’t matter that the person’s name in the sentence was actually “Mr. Wilson” and that white people would never use Wilson as a first name. The “W” felt familiar enough, something like the first character of Woo Jin, but different, too. Like he was reinventing himself, but not from scratch.
When I was little, I thought this was hysterical – my uncle giving himself a last name, and one as common as Wilson. I’d ask my mom to tell me the story every time we drove to his house in Long Island for Christmas. “Mom, so what did he say when he finally found out? Did he feel dumb? Did he want to change it?” I would ask, even though her answer was always the same.
“Honey, I can’t remember. Ask him yourself once we get there,” she would say somewhat distractedly, keeping her eyes locked on the road ahead. I never did, though. By the time we reached his house, I would rush to greet my cousins and play, forgetting all about their dad and his stupid name.
My cousins are only half Korean. Uncle Wilson had married a white woman named Shannon at 23, both fresh out of college. The last time I went back to Long Island for Christmas, they fought all night, hissing at each other when they thought no one was listening. My mom had mentioned on the drive over that they were having “marital problems,” but she couldn’t explain why exactly. “You’ll understand when you’re married,” she had said.
I spent most of that night imagining Uncle Wilson and Aunt Shannon on their first date. They were at a cheap dive bar, I decided, drinking beers together. Bud Light for him, and something a little nicer for her, Blue Moon maybe. Over their second round, he leans in and tells her the story of how he got his first name, his eyes light and his voice playful. When he gets to the punchline, she throws her curly red hair back in laughter and touches his arm. What a great story, she says, how cute.
I’ve always felt a little grateful, then, that at least my parents had the decency to give me my American name, that I didn’t have to find it myself. Faith Eun-Gee Chung, with my Korean name tucked safely within my American one. And nobody really uses their middle name anyways, I’d tell myself, except for on government documents or something. Some people don’t even have one.
Still, in elementary school, during the fad of monogrammed LL Bean backpacks, I couldn’t help but feel cursed. I had to have one, at least not unless I wanted to be the only kid in my second-grade class without a brand-new backpack. I liked mine anyway, how the white stitching of my initials, F.E.C., popped against the bright purple nylon, and the way it felt like it was made especially for me.
What I hated were the inevitable questions about the E.
“A. R. M. Amanda Rose Moretti,” my friend announced, running her finger over each embroidered letter one by one. “Rose was my grandmother’s name,” she added proudly. Amanda was my best friend, ever since we had sat next to each other the year before in our first-grade class and I had told her I liked her freckles. We had made a tradition of having play dates every Friday afternoon, and this time we were at her house.
“That’s pretty,” I told her, and I meant it, even though what I was really thinking about was whether she was going to ask or not. “So, any way…”
But before I could steer us to a new, safer topic, Amanda interjected, “So what do your initials stand for?”
I saw her looking at my purple bag and its white letters on her kitchen floor and briefly considered telling her the E was for Elizabeth. I felt a little guilty at the thought, although I wasn’t sure if this was for almost lying to Amanda or for picturing my mom’s face if she had heard me. I hesitated before first asking, “Promise you won’t tell anyone?”
“Cross my heart and hope to die,” she said seriously, her green eyes wide with sincerity.
“Faith Eun-Gee Chung,” I got out, quickly explaining, “I know my middle name is really weird. It’s Korean.”
“Eun-Gee…” She repeated slowly, trying it out and feeling its strangeness in her mouth. “Well, it’s not that bad. I mean Anna’s middle name is Warren, and that’s a boy’s name.”
By the time I was in second grade, Korean had grown strange for me as well.
My parents tell me that I was fluent before I turned 4, but that I lost it all once I started going to school and speaking English like my classmates. I find this hard to believe, even though I’ve seen the videos my mom has saved from back then. They’re on cassette so we haven’t watched them in years, but I remember a little of the grainy footage. In it, my mother is speaking to me from behind the camera, asking me questions in Korean.
She, too, had forgotten Korean when she was young. In high school, she says, her parents would talk to her in Korean, and she would respond in English. After she met my dad in college, once they graduated, she flew back to Korea for the first time. He had proposed and his parents insisted that any daughter of theirs needed to speak their language. It was a hassle, she says, living in Korea for those four months and remembering how to make her tongue move like her parents’. To save her kids the trouble, she spoke only in Korean to us when we were babies. Umma, we called her then.
In the video, my toddler self answers her readily, in words I can no longer understand.
In one of my earliest memories, I’m sitting in the kitchen with my family, watching my older sister and brother, Victoria and Christian, make patbingsu. My mother is helping them load the ice shaver, which is painted yellow in the face of an elephant. The crank is its trunk, and they take turns spinning it, letting the flakes of ice fall into the bowl below. Once its filled, they can add the sweet red bean paste and honey.
I can’t remember the words to this memory, but I imagine they should be in Korean. But what is the word in Korean for ice? For elephant?
Now, most of the Korean words that I know are related to either church or food. Moksanim to describe the comically short and balding pastor of our church, and ajjumas to describe the gossiping old ladies that “tsk” if your dress rides up too high when you sit at the pews. Hananim, Yesunim, God the Father, God the Son.
When Victoria leaves for college, she tells me that the worst thing about attending a white church is the potluck. No mandu, no kyudanchim, no rice, she tells me. Can you believe that?
The church we’ve attended our whole life is the Eastchester Korean Seventh Day Adventist Church. I don’t realize this is strange until the day in the third grade that the class know-it-all approached me during lunch and announced, “My mom told me that your mom told her that your family is Seventh Day Adventist.”
His tone wasn’t unfriendly, not like how he usually sounded when he was about to correct someone in class, so I didn’t know why I felt so uneasy or why I wasn’t sure how to respond. “Yeah,” I confirmed.
“So, are you like Christian?”
“Um, yeah. We believe in God and Jesus and stuff.”
“But, isn’t that like a cult?”
“No way,” I responded, insulted. I knew cults were bad things, but I wasn’t sure what they were exactly.
“Huh.” He seemed to accept my answer and walked away.
Later that day, I asked my mom about it when she picked me up from school. “Are we in a cult, Mom?”
“Did Tyler ask you about that? I just spoke to his mom about our church.”
“Yeah. So, are we?”
“Of course not, honey,” she shook her head at me and smiled. “Cults worship a specific person. We worship God. We’re just a denomination of Christianity, but we go to church on Saturday instead of Sunday. We’re kind of like Jews in that way – we both believe the day of rest, the Sabbath, is on the seventh day.”
This was a sufficient explanation for me, but I was annoyed that I had a new thing to be embarrassed about, that I had to be different from my classmates in another way. I liked church though. It was the only time I got to be with other Korean-American kids besides my siblings, and there were a few boys and girls around our age. They made fun of us for not speaking Korean, but taught us how to play new games where we would slap each other’s hands as hard as we could as punishment for losing. “White kids are wimps,” they told us. “Never try and teach your friends at school these.”
When I stopped believing in God, I learned to grow ashamed of my first name too.
It’s a slow unraveling and I’m not entirely sure when it had fully come undone, but there’s that one Friday night in my junior year of high school. It was winter then, and the sun had set hours ago, christening a new Sabbath. Sarah, my closest friend at the time, had just turned 16 so it was a special occasion, but I was surprised my parents had let me go out anyways. I almost felt a little guilty, thinking about the handles of cheap vodka and racks of beer her older brother had bought for the night.
He had come back from his first year at Yale for winter break armed with a fake ID that he assured us would work at the liquor store a few towns over, where all the underaged kids from our high school went to get their fix. He showed us the card, bending the plastic deftly with his hands. “See? That’s how you know this is a good one. The bouncers in New Haven can tell it’s fake if it’s too stiff.” I was impressed, but I still wouldn’t drink any of the stuff he had bought, I reminded myself. I never had.
Once I got there, though, a skinny boy I had never seen before passed me a can of Busch Light and introduced himself. He was cute, and when I took it from him our hands touched.
“Faith. That’s a pretty name. You religious or something?” He asked.
It wasn’t the first time someone had asked – my name wasn’t exactly subtle in its implications. I remembered an assignment I had once, probably in the fourth grade or so, where we were supposed to write about ourselves, and one of the questions had asked us to find out what our names meant. Other kids turned to baby-naming websites or asked their parents, but I didn’t need to. I knew mine was in the dictionary, a common noun reinvented as a proper one, as easy as capitalizing the F. Merriam Webster gave me two options. One: belief and trust in and loyalty to God. Two: firm belief in something for which there is no proof. Example: She was clinging to the faith that her missing son would one day return.
I was trying to remember which one I had chosen to write down, all those years ago, when I was suddenly aware of how alone were. Everyone else at the party, mostly other kids from the AP classes where Sarah and I had met, had drifted to the pool deck out back with their beers, and I could hear their voices muffled through the wall. My family, at church, felt a hundred walls away.
And in that moment, I knew I was happy to be there in Sarah’s kitchen, leaning against her familiar granite counter with that unfamiliar boy. The definitions didn’t seem so different when I answered plainly, “Not really. My family is though.” I cracked open the can, and drank carefully, letting my first sip of beer fizz over my tongue.
We didn’t kiss that night, but he wanted to. I did too, I think, and later, when he slid his lanky arm over my shoulders, I leaned into its warmth, feeling the heat from his skin spreading over mine in nervous flutters.
When he curved his face down towards mine, though, I turned away. “I’m too drunk,” I told him, thinking of my mom and dad now already in bed, back from the service.
This excerpt from Faith’s memoir was translated into Korean by Esther Song, who writes this Translator’s Note:
Translating Faith’s memoir was a truly special experience. Being able to recreate someone else’s writing in my own words is undoubtedly a privilege, but one that comes with its fair share of burdens. The very personal nature of the piece made it even more imperative that I treated each word, expression, and punctuation with utmost attention and care. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time and effort going through a single piece of text, dissecting each and every sentence into words and then words into their specific nuances and implications. I didn’t want my translation to obscure the meaning or tone of the original text and often struggled to find the ‘right’ words to encapsulate the unique rhythm and qualities of Faith’s writing. It was a difficult task, and I know there are parts of my translation that inevitably deviate from the original, simply due to fundamental differences that exist between the two languages as well as between our writing styles. However, I can confidently say that both the original and the translation tell Faith’s experience in equally beautiful, albeit different languages- and for me, this knowledge alone makes the whole experience of translation much more rewarding than challenging.