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 7, 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 announced their names.
My homeroom teacher was Mrs. Daigle, and her bright eyes widened as she saw me approach, the only Asian student on the 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—the best approximation would be a combination of the words 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 halfhearted efforts to speak English to my sister and me at home, but I resisted. Perhaps I wanted my identities to remain completely separate, perhaps it felt uneven to converse with them in a language they struggled with, or perhaps I needed to hold onto a piece of my Korean-ness.
Based on some arbitrary IQ test, I was placed in “Advanced English” in middle school. Our teacher, Mrs. Izzo, picked on me almost every class. I remember we were all chattering energetically and uncontrollably, as fifth graders do, when Mrs. Izzo screamed at me to be quiet and come sit in the Time Out seat. When class was over, she motioned at me to stay. “You were being lackadaisical today, Sigh-Yawn,” she spat. “Do you know what that means?”
I shook my head, humiliated that I didn’t know. The word sounded pretty; I noted that it contained the word daisy. I looked it up later: lackadaisical—“lacking enthusiasm and determination; carelessly lazy.” Perhaps I did not deserve to be in “Advanced English” after all.
What I also remember about my time in Maine are the hours I spent looking at myself in the mirror, so close to the glass that my breath fogged the view. With my white friends, I could almost pretend I looked exactly like them—that 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 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 I think I also examined myself so closely because my reflection fascinated me simply by existing. Who was I seeing in the mirror: 서연 or Sigh-Yawn? When you make it a habit to shuttle between two identities, it becomes easy to forget 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 mirrorless. By gaining the ability to morph myself into 서연 or Sigh-Yawn depending on the context, I had lost myself. By looking in the mirror, I was trying to memorize each despised feature, 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 is a private school filled with white teachers and children of expats like my father, where students are taught just enough to earn 5’s on AP exams. My first day, we were all sent to homeroom. They had grouped us alphabetically by last name, and so I was surrounded by other Korean students for the first time in my life (other Kims, and there were many Lees and Jungs too). As the students around me introduced themselves as Jenny, Ashley and Jennifer, I squirmed in my steel chair.
“Hi,” I said. “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. But I hadn’t been back to Korea since we left all those years ago. To these other Korean students, I was “whitewashed,” someone who didn’t even know how to say her own name.
I quickly found new friends among the Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Indian students at my school. (I actively hid from other Korean students, and the white students only hung out with one another.) My name was an obstacle every time I met someone new. I still stubbornly stuck to the Sigh-Yawn pronunciation, hoping it would make things simpler. My history teacher would call me Saigon as a joke and expect me to laugh every time.
Eventually, my friends gifted me with the nickname SY, pronounced Sigh. I thought I had found a solution, but being SY did not 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 high school English, we were taught to never 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, Mr. Modica, for help.
I said that I wanted to write about violin. “No, no,” he laughed, “You can’t do that.” I looked at him, puzzled.
“It’s a stereotype,” Mr. Modica said slowly. “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 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, 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 30 years ago). I sat at the corner of the room, next to Sam.
I had met Sam during orientation, when we 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 invalidated Sam’s Korean American identity, terrified that with his comment he would make me see the necessity of merging my two worlds. I saw the hurt on Sam’s face, and shame burned my cheeks. The professor hastily moved onto the next person.
I spent my first two years in college floating through classes, learning that what hurt even more than mispronunciation was invisibility. I allowed myself to speak in class only when I was absolutely confident that I had a new point to add to the conversation. This didn’t happen 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”? Sophomore year, a white girl raised her hand during a discussion on college admissions and said, “The term Asian American itself seems like an oxymoron to me.” I wasn’t offended then, because I secretly agreed with her. Ox-y-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.
Then, 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; 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 given to her ancestors by their enslaver. She didn’t know what her original family name was. I went next. Suh-Yuhn, I said, and I confessed that I did not know what my name meant. My parents had told me offhandedly a couple times before, but I’d never really listened. And as much as I hated to admit it, my Korean was stunted at a 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 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 was surprised that I wanted to. Inspired after reading Grace M. Cho’s work Haunting the Korean Diaspora, I wrote this poem:
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
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
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
My body is a house
just bones and wind
But now I see photos
Of refugees with faces like mine
and I fall apart
but still I move
Breathe it in,
Chew every grain, fill the pit feel
the violence hurt pain beauty intimacy hope
You haunt me and I like it
You remind me of
“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.
“I just 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. But these moments are starting to be outlasted by the moments in which I love my name and all its complications. Loving ourselves can feel impossible when society tells us we are both clichéd and abnormal; we are both singled out and ignored. But I am not an oxymoron: I am simply complex.
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.
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.
Seoyeon Kim ’21, an English and sociology major at Amherst, wrote her senior thesis on how dislocation alters and expands the way we understand selfhood. She was the Arts & Living managing editor of The Amherst Student and senior chair of Amherst’s Asian Students Association. She is now a legal assistant in the New York office of Sanford Heisler Sharp.
This article first appeared in Confluences: Lost & Found in Translation, a publication of the College’s Writing Center. It is adapted and reprinted with permission.
Photograph by Jen Siska
Illustration by James Yang