“How about Dorothy?” Cecile asked me.
Under the bright fluorescent lights in the high school library, I blinked at her. “Do I look like a Dorothy to you?”
“No, I suppose not.”
For some time I had craved a name like hers: Cecile Lee. Graceful, unique, it flowed like her sheen of black hair that tickled her oval face, her complexion almost translucent with the faintest of blue veins visible. We were fifteen. She and I sat with name books strewn about on a wooden table dinged up by compass points and grooved with initials.
She tried again. “Emily?”
Cecile’s fingers ran down each column of potentials before dismissing them with a flip of the page. I waited for the right name.
After turning several pages, Cecile’s fingers stopped and tapped against the paper. With her other hand, she motioned for me to look with her.
“Isabelle,” she said. “How about Isabelle?”
My ribcage expanded. Isabelle was an uncommon name, it seemed to me, one that was beautiful and not staid like Dorothy or Emily.
“Yes, but without the –le at the end,” I said. “They’re too frilly… just Isabel.”
In college, I was Isabel. I truncated my given Korean name, Seung-Wan, to “S.” The period functioned like a stopper. The name, which others for years misshaped with their tongues, evolved into an object of minor curiosity.
“What does the S stand for?”
“My Korean name.”
They looked at me, waiting. “Which is…?”
“Seung-Wan.” The name flew from my lips to enter their ears and was turned away. They didn’t care or wish to avoid the awkwardness of asking me to say it over and over. “Oh,” they said politely. “How interesting. Does it mean anything?”
If we had patience and time and paper and pen, I’d have explained the lines, curves and, ticks striking together to create meaning. I’d have etched Chinese characters, hanja, the ancient tree from which every Korean name is derived, but I didn’t know how to write the strokes that my mother’s father showed me in Seoul nearly two decades earlier, the last time I saw him alive. He held the pencil like forceps, at the end far from its tip. Cross-legged on the ground, he tilted his hand downward onto the paper on the floor, and with swift flicks of the wrist drew calligraphy. I’d lost that piece of paper.
My own father has since supplied me with the hanja combination of characters that belongs to me:
In my father’s words, the first house of characters above is my surname and refers to “high,” as in class or nobility; the second means “aid” in the sense of a minister or counselor to the king; the final assembly represents a beautiful gem or stone, like jade. The second and third blocks correspond to my first name of two syllables. These hanja leaves once coalesced in the mind of my paternal grandfather, who culled letters from the phonetic Korean alphabet:
This I can write on my own. The slow uneven marks bare my years growing up in the States:
My Korean name is spoken in two concise notes. To start the first one, the jaw clamps shut while the lips part just a little. The tip of the tongue strikes the roof of the mouth, where gum meets teeth. A whispered, soft s sound—a cousin of z—and a warm wind from within, rush between the teeth, before they escape together. With the mouth in the same position, the first beat is completed with a sound similar to the ng in sing but lasts a moment shorter, like the final vibration of a grazed guitar string.
To enunciate the second half of my name, the lips purse into a small circle before exploding wide into a w sound, only to snap back into an n, with the tongue’s u-edge landing on the perimeter of the roof. Similar in pronunciation to wan, as in a wan smile, the a in my name has just enough time to breathe; it is not stretched but decisive. When family elders call for me, they attach the vocative phrase ah to the end of it. Those two letters linger as they carry my name up and down the stairs, down the hallway, through the walls, to find the room in which I sit, occupied but with an ear half-expecting, listening for the lilt that crescendos my name, makes it home, makes it intimate, makes me belong.
Now the lines and ticks and curves, and the music they produce, compress into my post-S period, silent.
There are times when I must uncork the period, for Isabel only chases my given name. Doctors’ offices require and use first names. In the seating area I browse through outdated magazines. An assistant in floral scrubs appears in the doorway, peering at her clipboard. Her eyes furrow with effort.
“Uh… See-yung Weng? Say-yoon Wane?”
I stand up. “That’s me.”
“Sorry about your name, how do you say it?”
“It’s all right. It’s Seung-Wan.”
A blank look follows. “Oh. How pretty.” We enter the examination room.
“You can call me by my middle name Isabel,” I say, “if you want to note that on my record.”
“Mm, there’s no space in our system to do that,” she says and shuts the door behind her.
Born in Seoul, I moved to New Jersey at the age of five. Every school year when we changed classes, new teachers had to learn my name. I heard the catch in their breath, their irritation with the unphonetic pronunciation, or the embarrassed stammering, all of which told me, “You are different,” even though I had not yet said a word. For each class I exhausted myself to prove I was diligent, that I was smart despite the weirdness of my name. I would raise my hand to save them the trouble of calling it out loud. Substitutes would sideswipe the approval currency I’d earned over time with my regular teachers.
On his feet, the substitute shifted his weight as his finger paused at a spot on the roll call.
“Here,” I responded, accepting his slight exasperation.
And Katie. We were twelve or thirteen years old when we were playing at her apartment after school. Katie was a gangly pixie with a swan neck and long-lashed brown eyes. A bit off, she was an “other” like me, which attracted me to her. She had hesitated in inviting me to her place but once there she hurried us past the coffee-colored carpet that reminded me of an unkempt dog, and led us up a narrow staircase.
Only her teenaged sister, who nodded her acknowledgement before disappearing into her own room, was home. On Katie’s bed, we gabbed while listening to cassette tapes by Tracy Chapman and George Michael. Then Katie started a game.
“My sister called you something that starts with a u,” she said.
“Noun or adjective?” I asked. Grammar was my new favorite subject.
“Adjective.” Katie stared at me, almost inspected me.
“Okaaay… you going to tell me?”
I leaned back against the wall. “Unusual.”
Katie shook her head.
“Unhappy.” Which I wasn’t.
I decided on a different direction: “Ultra-cool?”
“Uh-uh.” Her large eyes gleamed at me.
“I give up. Tell me.”
“Ugly. She said ‘your friend Seung-Wan is ugly.’”
She said what I believed many had thought. I spent middle school caking my skin with foundation to mask angry acne and lighten blemishes. My head of cumbrous permed hair—my mother’s attempt at assimilation for me—dipped forward to hide more of my face, and lay heavily on top of my scrawny chest, which was donned in a baggy, pastel Benetton sweatshirt.
My skin largely cleared up by the time I reached high school and I had my evergreen-cone of black frizz straightened. My peers noticed my new look but still kept me at a distance, which I felt every time they said my name. Shortly thereafter, I asked Cecile to consider American names with me.
My new name helped me launch another identity in college, in New Hampshire, a five-hour drive away from where I grew up. My circle included girls with melodic names such as Priscilla Cham, Erin Fuse, and Yuhka Miura, members of a dance group who sauntered across campus in hot-pants and cropped white shirts showing off toned torsos, on their way to their next performance.
“Hey, Izzy!” Priscilla said.
“Yeah?” I answered.
“Your sneakers are untied.”
I bent down to double-knot the laces, stood up and readjusted my spandex shorts to display the silver hoop pierced in my navel, and continued striding with the group across the main quad.
After college, I attended law school. After law school, I worked at a large law firm. I married. I changed jobs. In all of these transitions and microcosms, Isabel introduced me to people quickly and naturally. Every compliment of “Oh, what a pretty name” actually felt sincere. Within each group, I was a member; I worked hard to prove myself as an integral one. My father didn’t mind my use of Isabel, understanding from his own experiences that assimilation is difficult if people don’t even want to say your name. Sometimes he introduced himself as Jonathan.
In my late thirties now, I question the decision borne out of my adolescent cravings. If I had persevered in using my given name during my young adult life, would I have different friends? After college would I regardless have escaped west to San Francisco?
The girl with a need to fit into the crowd has shuttered into a curmudgeon-introvert. I savor stillness with my immigrant husband, a tall Serb whose older brother dubbed him Igor, a name that made his immersion in Birmingham, Alabama, challenging. I call Igor Honey; he calls me Babe or Kiddo.
In interactions like these, what impact does a name make?
Said in Korean, my name is a graceful, bird-like thing. The American tongue bashes it with a harsh s and ugly twangs, leaving behind severed wings that flutter and limp to the ground, far from the ancient hanja tree.
Even my last name, Choi, is an accommodation. The true pronunciation would be closer to Chweoh. Approximately 170 people of the surname Choi lived in the United States as early as 1940, well before the wave of Korean immigrants who started arriving in the late 70s (my family was one of them). I imagine the first Choi families shuffling through long lines at Ellis Island or Angel Island, and the immigration officer, testy from deciphering day in and day out non-English phonemes and diphthongs uttered and repeated by thousands of anxious hopefuls. Impatient to complete paperwork and move on to the next file, the officer snapped shut his cultural aperture. He took in the ch sound, figured it sounded like a Chinese name he had heard before, and scribbled down the closest version of what he already knew. I imagine that, with no common language to bridge an understanding, the families, after months on the sea, and then weeks or months of detention while waiting for medical and legal clearance, succumbed: Yes, put me down as Choi, even though there is no oy sound anywhere.
A name serves as a gateway to knowing someone, and usually the person with the aberrant name must create the opportunities. One way is to change her name. A name effortlessly processed blends her into the crowd and from there she can flourish as a visible individual. Of course exceptions exist: the strong ones who hold onto names difficult to pronounce endure this constant hurdle. But for a girl, an unattractive adolescent who may not possess the boldness to disregard others’ unconscious or overt disdain or discomfort, an American name helps. Several acquaintances of mine reverted to their Korean names in their adulthood, after completing school and settling down. I doubt I will follow them.
My shift to Isabel allowed me to emerge, for others to see me.
And yet, during the night, in the silence, as I contemplate my grandfathers, grandmothers, and mother, who have passed on, as I see in the dark the white of my father’s hair, the crook in his back deepening, I wonder who will remain to call out the name before my name, to bring me into their own.
The period trembles.
Original artwork by Jen Fabish. Name character illustrations provided by author.