No matter how hard I try, I can’t remember how teachers said my name in Korea. I know that it didn’t matter. Back then, there was just one way to say my name: 서연.
When I was seven years old, my family moved to Falmouth, Maine — a suburb so close to the ocean that the air always smelled a little bit like salt. I vaguely remember the chaotic first day of second grade at my new school; all the homeroom teachers stood on the playground holding up huge signs that had their names plastered onto them. My homeroom teacher was Mrs. Daigle, and I remember her bright eyes widening as she saw me approach her, the only Asian student on the whole playground. I must have said my name to her in Korean at first, 서연, with the soft S that doesn’t quite translate into English. Maybe she tried to say it correctly for a while, I don’t remember, but my Korean name quickly became Anglicized. I used to be 서연. Now I was Seoyeon, pronounced Sigh-Yawn. I think I was the one who forced this Anglicization, desperate to cram some English words into a name that was seemingly untranslatable. I don’t remember when Seo Yeon (my legal name, with a space between the two syllables) became Seoyeon.
I’ve always been good at perceiving the needs of people around me and adapting myself to the situation accordingly. It’s a concept called 눈치 in Korean, and there’s no exact English translation — I guess the best approximation would be a combination of self-awareness and empathy. Using my 눈치, I molded myself into different personalities at home and at school, unwittingly splitting my psyche in two: 서연, who spoke only Korean to her family and Sigh-Yawn, who quickly adjusted to her new school. My parents made half-hearted efforts to speak English to me and my sister at home, but I always resisted. I don’t know why exactly — perhaps I needed my identities to remain completely separate in order to avoid conflict, perhaps it felt uneven to converse with them in a language that they still struggled and stuttered with, or perhaps I needed to hold onto a piece of my Korean-ness while still succeeding in school as Sigh-Yawn.
Based on some arbitrary IQ test, I was placed in the “Gifted & Talented” program in elementary school, which evolved to be called “Advanced English” in middle school. Our teacher, Mrs. Izzo (we used to call her Frizzo because of her unruly hair and prickly personality), picked on me almost every class. I remember one class in particular, when we were all chattering energetically and uncontrollably as fifth graders do. Mrs. Izzo suddenly screamed at me to be quiet and come sit next to her. I was in the Time-Out seat for the whole class, and when class was over, she motioned at me to stay.
“You were being lackadaisical today, Sigh-Yawn,” she spat. The glittery lotion on her orange chest blurred my vision. “Do you know what that means?”
I shook my head, humiliated that I didn’t know. Honestly, the word sounded pretty; I noted that it contained the word “daisy.” I don’t think she ever actually told me what it meant, but I looked it up myself later: lackadaisical — “lacking enthusiasm and determination; carelessly lazy.” In retrospect, it was a very ill-fitting word to call me in that situation. I vaguely remember feeling indignant that I was the only one singled out when we had all been chatting noisily in class (I just wanted to fit in), but what really stuck was the ugly-but-pretty-sounding word with all its syllables, lack-a-dai-si-cal. Perhaps I did not deserve to be in “Advanced” English after all. Lackadaisical Sigh-Yawn.
What I also remember about my time in Maine are the hours I spent just looking at myself in the mirror, so close to the glass that my breath fogged the view. When I was with my white friends, I could almost pretend I looked exactly like them — I could pretend I had Samantha’s golden brown curls (they were the world’s most beautiful commas) and Grace’s sapphire blue eyes (my favorite color). The mirror told me otherwise. My real eyes were small and slanted, so dark brown that they looked jet black, a color that matched my stiff hair. My nose was blunt and flat, despite all the mornings I had woken up and pinched my nose bridge in an effort to create the perfect button.
Of course, by looking in the mirror I was willing myself to look different, to fit in. But looking back, I think I also examined myself so closely because my reflection fascinated me simply by existing. Who was I looking at — 서연 or Sigh-Yawn? When you make it a habit to shuttle between two identities, it becomes easy to forget that you were ever one, that you were ever whole. My reflection in the mirror fascinated me because of this: there was one of me. I existed, whoever “I” was. It also terrified me that no matter how long I stared, I always largely forgot what I looked like when mirror-less. By gaining the ability to morph myself into 서연 or Sigh-Yawn depending on the context, I had lost myself. I was trying to memorize each despised feature by looking at myself, trying to form a wholeness that I could hold onto.
I spent my childhood in Maine making sure that my identities never coincided. When I moved to Singapore and started attending a high school that was half white, half Asian, I was forced to confront this possibility.
Singapore American School was a private school filled with white teachers and children of expats like my father, where students were taught just enough to earn 5s on AP exams, nothing more. The campus was half outdoors so that you were always sweating in the Singapore heat, wind sticking to your forehead as you rushed down the hallway for your next class. My first day there, we were all sent to homeroom. They had grouped us alphabetically by last name, and so it happened that I was surrounded by other Korean students for the first time in my life (other Kims, and there were many Lees and Jungs too). I squirmed in my steel chair, feeling myself disconnect more and more once I heard the students around me introduce themselves as Jenny, Ashley, Jennifer.
“Hi,” I said, trying to make myself be loud, “I’m Seoyeon, and I’m from Maine. I’m new.” I heard muted giggles behind me.
I learned later that the Korean students were laughing at the way I pronounced my name, Sigh-Yawn (drawled out slowly, because I was terrified of having to repeat myself). They were also laughing at how I said I was from Maine. How could I say I was from anywhere else? I hadn’t been back to Korea since we left all those years ago. But to these other Korean students, I was “whitewashed.” I didn’t even know how to say my own name; I must have seemed so foolish to them. My faint hopes at connecting with those who shared my identity were shattered, and I told myself to stay far away from the other Koreans.
I quickly found new friends among the Asian population at my new school; my friends were Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Indian, but never Korean and never white (I actively hid from other Korean students, while the white students only hung out with each other). My name, however, became an obstacle that I had to overcome every time I met someone new. I still stubbornly stuck to the Sigh-Yawn pronunciation of my name, hoping it would make things simpler. My history teacher would call me Saigon as a joke and expected me to laugh every single time. My friends eventually gifted me with the nickname “SY,” pronounced Sigh, and I thought I had found a solution, but being SY didn’t absolve me from the fact that I was crippled by uncertainty on a daily basis. 서연, Sigh Yawn, SY — I was fragmenting myself so much that I didn’t know what was left.
In my high school English classes, we were taught never to write an essay with “I.” That felt natural to me. How could I dare to be an “I,” to place myself in the center, when I didn’t even know who I was? For me, writing was always a project about something or someone else; I was most comfortable being an observer. When it came time to work on my college applications, I went to my school’s counselor for help.
Mr. Modica was a tall, bald man who had a potbelly so big it looked like he was hiding a balloon underneath his red polo shirt. He sat down on the couch next to me with great effort, huffing.
“So, tell me what you want,” he said. “What are you going to write about for your Common App essay?” I told him I wanted to write about violin.
“No, no,” he laughed, “You can’t do that.” I looked at him, puzzled.
“It’s a stereotype,” he said slowly, as if I was stupid. “Cliché.” Another lesson: I could feel so strange and alone that I had to stare at myself in the mirror for hours to convince myself I existed, and yet I could be a cliché, one of many, insignificant, boring, unimportant, more of the same. Mr. Modica often mixed me up with Jenny Kim, whose Korean name was the same as mine. I learned then that my wants were less important than what was wanted from me. With this new knowledge, how could I tell the counselor that I wanted to write about violin because the instrument mended a fracture inside of me? Because playing it made me feel real? I soon stopped practicing, my instrument discarded under a growing pile of dust. I ended up writing about food and “multiculturalism” instead, about forcing my mother to buy Uncrustables at our Falmouth grocery store and trying Hainanese chicken rice for the first time. It’s actually good that I didn’t have a place to call home, I argued in the essay, because it allowed me to have more unique experiences. I’m not sure who I was trying to convince— the admissions officers or myself.
In the latter half of my senior year I watched as the few Korean names around me disappeared, transformed. Jisoo became Michelle, Minjung became Emily, Hyewon became Mina. I think my mom asked me once if I wanted to do the same, adopt an English name before college, and I seriously considered it. But I couldn’t find anything that fit. I used to play a game with my white friends in middle school, back in Maine. What would my middle name be, if I had one? Seoyeon Elizabeth Kim was the most correct-sounding configuration, we had decided. But I didn’t feel like an Elizabeth. Or a Caroline. Or an anything, really. There’s no doubt that an English name would have made my life easier, simpler. Why didn’t I do it then? It was the same inexplicable stubbornness that kept me from speaking English to my parents at home. For some reason, despite all my experiences pushing me toward total assimilation, I resisted without even knowing why.
And so I came to Amherst College, another new start, with the same name. My first semester, I was in an English class where everyone seemed to know each other already (one of the students even knew the professor already, as his mother had been in this same class some thirty years ago). I sat at the corner of the room, next to Sam.
I had met Sam earlier in the semester at an event for orientation, where tens of students piled into our tiny campus center to grab a Build-A-Bear stuffed animal. Sam was small and baby-faced, with a toothy grin. I don’t remember the first thing we said to each other, but we soon got into a debate about whether the plural form of moose was “meese” or “moose” (I argued for the former; I was wrong).
“It’s definitely just moose,” he declared, laughing at how skeptical I looked. When we first introduced ourselves, he must have told me that although he was Korean, he didn’t speak the language.
I can’t recall anything from the class we had together besides learning the meanings of “enjambment” (I still think it’s funny how the word sounds so rigid, like you’re jamming a whole sentence into a space that’s too small, when it’s actually the opposite — a freeing, spilling act) and “i-am-bic pent-a-me-ter,” and one incident in particular. We were examining individual words in poetry and considering how we decide which syllable to emphasize, which to de-emphasize. The professor suggested we think about our names, so we went around the classroom.
So-PHI-a. CON-nor. E-LIZ-a-beth. I was squirming again. I wanted more than anything to say my name and have that be it, to move on. By this point, I had moved away from Sigh-Yawn to Suh-yuh-n, inching closer to a pronunciation that best approximated 서연 in English. But when my turn came, I didn’t know which syllable to emphasize. I tried to force it.
“I think it would be SUH-yuhn, so there’s an emphasis on the first syllable,” I said, trying to sound confident. Sam raised his hand next to me.
“Actually, I feel like there’s no stressed syllable in your name,” he pointed out. Instantly, I realized he was right. In Korean, syllables are equally measured and pronounced, and lilts are created by emotion, not the language itself. But I just wanted to move on. Others started chiming in, and the whole class was now discussing my name, the obstacle that I had been carrying for years. I needed it to end.
“But you don’t even speak Korean!” I exclaimed, voice cracking. The class stilled and everyone stared. The implications of what I had blurted out hung in the air: Why are you speaking on this? Your opinion doesn’t matter. Your opinion is invalid. You don’t know how to speak the language; I do. In trying to defend myself, I had just invalidated Sam’s Korean American identity, terrified that with his comment he would make me see the necessity of merging my two worlds. I couldn’t let that happen. I saw the hurt on Sam’s face and shame burned my cheeks. The professor hastily moved onto the next person, and I never spoke to Sam again.
I spent my first two years in college floating through classes, learning that what hurt even more than mispronunciation was invisibility. I only allowed myself to speak in class when I was absolutely confident that I had a new point to add to the conversation. This didn’t happen very often, but when it did, most professors would avoid my eyes, addressing me as “you” (“You bring up a good idea, and…” “What you’re saying relates to what Cassie said earlier…”). How could I dare to be an “I,” when I was just a “you?” And in one of my sociology classes sophomore year, a white girl raised her hand during a discussion on college admissions and said point-blank, “The term Asian American itself seems like an oxymoron to me.” I wasn’t offended then because I secretly agreed with her. O-xy-mo-ron: I purposefully chose between my “Asian” and “American” identities depending on the context, ignoring the fact that I was splitting myself into smaller and smaller fragments in order to be blended in.
As a junior, I tentatively signed up for “Decolonial Love,” an English seminar where we read authors and scholars I had never heard of before, like Christina Sharpe and Tommy Pico. We read stories of people marginalized because of race, gender, class, queerness — people who had been denied and displaced by forces of colonialism. Reading stories of other “others,” I realized I was not alone, far from it. We read stories of love. Self-love was a power, I learned.
One class, we went around saying our names and the histories behind them. I felt a familiar pang of jealousy when Elise said her name came from her great-grandmother, who had immigrated from Norway to the U.S. when she was young. She knew her history, when I didn’t even know my present. The girl in front of me told a different story, of how her last name was a slave name actually given to her ancestors by their master. She didn’t know what her original family name was. I went next, Suh-Yuhn, and I confessed that I actually didn’t know what my name meant. My parents had told me off-handedly a couple times before, but I never really listened. And as much as I hated to admit it, my Korean was stunted at second-grade level and I didn’t know enough characters in Hanja, the strokes you needed to know to grasp the meaning of each individual character. I muttered something about people always avoiding saying my name and how much it hurt me. I laughed but it sounded more like I was choking. I quickly glanced over at the girl on the other side of me, willing her to start speaking. But the professor was looking at me. She looked directly into my eyes and repeated my name back to me. It sounded beautiful.
In “Decolonial Love,” I tried writing with “I” for the first time since my Common App essay. We were given the freedom to write about ourselves, and I surprised myself because I wanted to. Emboldened by the fact that the professor knew my name and seemed to actually care about what I had to say, I wrote a poem after I read Grace Cho’s work “Haunting the Korean Diaspora”:
I think of the people who got separated by the war
Torn apart by a border that was imagined
One side good, other side bad
One side “trendy,” other side “Kim Jong Un”
Worst part is I never thought of any of them until very
I asked my parents if Korea got a say in its separation
No — followed by
Why do you ask?
I never asked because I thought I wasn’t supposed to
I didn’t need the
I could float, float and drift and float and drift like a feather and
camouflage myself into the
American bird and knowing would just
Drag me down
What even is white?
White is knowledge white is power white is control white is history white is feeling white is embodiment white is knowing you have a home and knowing your body is a home
White consumed me
I never knew how
To fight back
But now I see photos
Of refugees with faces like mine
And I fall apart
Somehow I feel
Reaching toward a history I was only circling my entire
Breathing it in
Chewing every new grain, being filled by
Violence hurt pain beauty intimacy hope
You haunt me and I like it
You remind me of
Writing these words made me feel pulled together in a way I never knew possible. The professor asked me to read the poem out loud in class, and I did. I’m sure I was shaking and terrified but what I remember most is the silence and attention that blanketed my voice. It felt unreal to read my own words and have people listen. I was worthy of this space. The realization was a sort of power that vibrated through every crevice in my body, and beyond.
“I wouldn’t want to give my child an Asian-sounding name,” my friend blurted out the other day. I felt burned.
“What? What do you mean?” I asked, the tone of my voice already rising.
“I just…I don’t want to make things even more difficult for her,” she explained.
“You know she’s going to be Asian no matter what you name her, right?” I shot back.
Of course, I know what she meant. There are still brief moments when I regret not having adopted an English name when I was younger. I know that it is easy for some people to forget how to say my name at all, that many will call me “you” without considering what invisibility does to a person, that others will even weaponize my own name against me, against my self-worth. But these moments are starting to be outlasted by the moments in which I love my name and all its complications. Loving yourself feels impossible when society marginalizes you to the point where you’re estranged from your own body. They tell us that we are both clichéd and abnormal; we are both singled out and ignored. But I am not an oxymoron — I am simply complex. Self-love is always a possibility, as long as we are willing to reach for it (and we must).
For me, speaking for myself, I am going to give my future child a Korean name, despite thinking of my own as a disabling emptiness for most of my life. I am going to tell them the history of their name, which is to say I am going to tell them the history of me, and I am going to tell them their name is beautiful until they believe me. Because to love yourself when everything is telling you not to is heroic. Audre Lorde taught me that. Because you don’t have to be born whole in order to feel full. Ocean Vuong taught me that. The gaps inside of you are actually what we call potential, possibilities. The possibility of life, according to Adrienne Rich.
When I was younger, I was terrified of the sky. I remember breathing in the salty Maine air, looking up, and feeling like I would just fall apart. I thought the clouds would tilt and crash down on me like concrete, obliterating what little of me there was left in this world. I used to feel more like air than a person, and I thought this would last all my life. I didn’t expect that I could feel tethered simply by writing, simply by making myself into an “I.” That by centering myself I was actually building my center. That by writing I was remembering, which is to say, re-membering myself into something bigger, vaster.
Seoyeon can be separated into two characters in Korean, 서 and 연. The first means wise. The second means bright. I’m starting to believe my name.
I will not forget it.