What‘s in a name?
Names are incredibly personal. My boring, ubiquitous Korean name is a tongue-twister and a source of much confusion abroad. To confuse matters, there is no standard way to spell Korean names. I have always been Chi-Young Kim. Not Chiyoung, Jiyoung, or Jeeyoung. Always with a CH, a hyphen, and a capital Y, with Kim coming after my first name. The way I spell my name makes me who I am.
I could fill entire books with the names I have been called, some iterations by well-meaning but clueless adults and others by mischievous peers on the playground. I’ve been called Chi (as though a hyphen means you can drop the rest of the name), Chi-Chi (after a salsa brand), Chi-chi-chi-chia (when those awful Chia Pets were in vogue), Chai (apparently something about Chi makes people want to pronounce it that way), Young, Young Kim, and Kim. Some feel they need to pronounce it the “real” way, and end up with Chai-Yoong or worse.
One memorable day in junior high, the vice principal, who had known me for three years at that point, called me Kimchi. In graduate school, I was given the email address email@example.com. I had to call the head of the IT department to explain I wouldn’t be able to find a job with an email handle like that. For a brief period, I tried to tell people that my name was “Chi like cheese, young like old and young.” That clever ditty ended up being even more confusing, with some thinking my name was Cheeseyoung.
The worst is when people call me Chi or Kim, even though they have known me for years and I have only ever referred to myself as Chi-Young. It’s a little awkward to correct them when you’ve worked alongside someone for a number of years. I wish I had the guts to be like my mother. An older woman once asked her whether she should call my mom by the first or second syllable of her name, and my mom retorted, “Do you want me to call you Har or Riet?”
Furthermore, people seem flustered by the hyphen. Many people don’t know what a hyphen is, so inevitably they can’t figure out what my first name is. Sometimes I enter a restaurant to find that I am Ms. Young-Kim on the reservation. It’s also frustrating that many agencies and companies don’t allow for a hyphen in their computer systems. It even varies from state to state; I couldn’t get a hyphen on my New York driver’s license even though my name is hyphenated on my birth certificate and passport.
I was informed that their system didn’t support hyphens. I couldn’t help but take it personally. But in California, perhaps enlightened thanks to a more diverse population, hyphens are duly printed on my driver’s license. Maybe that explains why I settled in California. I’m convinced that one of these days, I will be barred from flying because the name on my boarding pass doesn’t match my government-issued ID.
Because of these hardships, I vowed not to bestow this annoying legacy on my daughter. My husband agreed. He insists he has also encountered difficulties by having a not-so-common name, but that’s like telling someone without any hands that you got a paper cut on your finger. We gave our daughter a very easy, simple name. But we got stuck when it came time to decide on her last name. I didn’t particularly like the idea of my daughter having her father’s last name, as I thought it was important to bestow some Korean heritage in her name. More crucially, I’m the one who lumbered around for nine months and went through labor and birth. For a variety of reasons I didn’t want her to just have my last name either. We toyed with combining our last names, which is popular in some circles (for example, LA mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s last name is a combination of Villar and Raigosa). But neither of us wanted to change our names, and it would be silly for only the baby to have a completely made-up last name while we kept ours. In the end, we settled on a 1970s feminist classic: a hyphenated last name.
Ever diligent, I conducted a survey with a sample size of one by calling a friend with a hyphenated last name. She neglected to remind me that her last name is so long it doesn’t fit on standard forms, so we went ahead with our plan. Somehow, even with my years of experience, I had overlooked the fact that people still don’t know what a hyphen is. Also, since our daughter’s last name starts with my last name, Kim, people think her first name is Kim. But after a few months of regret, I came around to embrace our hyphens. It’s a character builder, and I’m sure people will find ways to butcher her name no matter what. I’m good friends with people who have been called Alien, Thigh, and Rackle. And only one of their names is foreign.
Chi-Young Kim is a literary translator based in Los Angeles. She has translated works by Shin Kyung-sook, Kim Young-ha, and Jo Kyung-ran. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website, chiyoungkim.com.