"What’s in a Name? Quite a Lot" by Hyunho Yoon
Second Place for College Prose
For anyone wondering how to say my name, here are some ways I found to work in approximating the sound in the past:
• It’s like “ya know” with a slight H in the beginning.
• Like Keanu in Keanu Reeves, except the K is an H and the U is an O.
• The Hyun, rhymes with “bun,” is like the Hyun in “Hyundai,” the car company. Add an “O” at the end.
• Or just fuck it and call me Henry.
During freshman orientation we were asked to talk about moving to a new place and what we had brought with us. People mentioned their teddy bears, family albums, high school jerseys, posters of their favorite TV shows. I said I brought my name. Many Asians adopt a convenient English handle when they come over to this country; I decided against it. Since then, it has been an ordeal to teach a non-Korean how to say it. For a while I used to mentally flinch at an imminent introduction, when I would have to apologetically say my name as slowly as socially acceptable, then spend a minute of the recipient’s unexpected time on describing how it’s pronounced.
We go back and forth, me trying to mold their sounds, them trying to contort their tongue the correct way to have an utterance with a semblance of mine leave their lips.
And we go on for a while until I smile and tell them it’s perfect, it’s how native Koreans say it. Even when I don’t mean it, I soon learned, it’s a nice way to get to talking with someone. A guy in a Breaking Bad hazmat suit at a Halloween party once parroted back “Shadow” with a beerish tang in his breath, which in truth was infinitely cooler than the costume I had put on for the occasion, and so I left it at that. I was happy about getting the spooky nickname for the night, and my new friend was happy that he could “speak Korean.” Even later on when I came up with the guidelines—“It’s like ‘ya know’ with a slight H in the beginning, etc.”—to save everyone else from needless exertion, it still required a few rounds of the back and forth for them to get it right and for us to break the conversational ice.
Spelling, or even writing it out on paper, rarely helps. The funny thing is, the confusion on how to read my Korean name comes from the fact that today’s American English comes from so many languages, and that there are many possible ways to say a particular combination of letters. A Hispanic Estrella would have different sounding double-l’s compared to a Giselle with French roots. The “ch” in the Anglo-Saxon Chad would have more in common with the “q” in a Chinese Li Qiang than the “ch” in an Italian Chiara. In Korean there would be no confusion about how to read one’s name, which would all be lightly but equally butchered as they are passed through the filter of our uniform, custom-fitted alphabet.
The other funny thing is, it’s gotten to the point that I have nothing else to complain about regarding my racial experience in Pittsburgh other than the fact that the people here can’t instinctively say my name. Today’s USA is still fighting out its lingering traces of racism, and this battle is as important as it has ever been. But I think it is important to note and celebrate the advancements that have been made in this field, as much as it is to point out what’s still wrong with the current situation. After all, what’s a battle worth if there is nothing being gained?
Continued news reports may lead some to believe that America is an intolerant place for racial minorities, but the fact that it’s constantly being talked about is part of what makes the United States one of the most, if not very well the most, diverse and inclusive country in the world. Backpacking in Europe, I had wine-infused college students loudly call out the “Chino” in their midst with squinting eyes, and nobody batted an eye. I’ve seen old ladies here lecture people on the bus for far less.
But as far as we’ve come in the path to racial equality, I agree that the struggle is not yet entirely over. Maybe it’s because of my majors in writing and psychology (I do research primarily on language acquisition in adults), but I sincerely believe that the next big step lies in the way we speak and otherwise use language. Among those who have rid themselves of overt prejudice and racially motivated malice, which I believe are the majority of Americans today, many still have yet to shed their use of subtly biased language, and our cultural vocabulary is in need of improvement. It is not just out of political correctness; scientifically, the idea that language mirrors the mind is an incomplete depiction of how things work. The influence is bidirectional, in that language we as a culture use in turn affects the way we think. Outlawing discriminatory actions alone won’t suffice. To change peoples’ attitudes, the American public tongue needs to change.
I’ve had new friends, with the best of intentions, go out of their way to tell me how much they enjoy eating rice, as if some solidarity could be formed on the basis of those sticky grains. Of course, I would appreciate it more if they treated me like their other friends who go nuts for bacon cheeseburgers and Chipotle, but the fact is I do like rice as much as I like burgers (a lot), and I hardly think the Asian Americans who worked on the railroads and sugarcane fields a century past would have been offended if a white person went up to them and tried to be friendly, albeit relying on a racial crutch for lack of situational familiarity. So I seldom get annoyed when it happens.
I’ve had others politely ask, “Are you from Pittsburgh?” in lieu of “What country are you from?” But based on the type of people who mostly ask the former question, I can tell it is the latter that they are curious of. Of course, more times than not, if you ask a Carnegie Mellon student with a foreign sounding name, he or she will not be from the United States; nor am I, so I can’t say that they’re unjustified. And besides, I work with elderly patients at the local hospital—some of whom affectionately remember the “oriental gentleman” they had a nice conversation with—so I learned not to get offended even by the more direct variation of the question.
Then there are the several enthusiastic bus drivers who yell out “Nihao!” when a large group of my Korean friends get on. I don’t know what they expect to do if we really spoke the language and replied something back to them in Mandarin, but I know they’re being nice. I resist the urge to jokingly reply “Guten tag” when they’re Caucasian, or “Hola” if they’re darker skinned. I just smile and nod my head in a respectful half-bow, as I would to a bus driver in Seoul.
But the thing is, although I don’t take any offense, at the end of the day I do feel somewhat left out. And I’m sure the people who have spoken to me in such a way involuntarily perceive themselves, at some level, with an element of detachment from me.
Language therefore really is key to complete racial equality; but we must remember, as much as it is a cultural and political medium, it is also a personal tool that is shaped by nothing more than habit. It’s a hard and onerous process to change the way we speak. I myself am guilty of momentarily adopting an English name when interacting with people if it really isn’t worth the time and effort to teach them my real one. The busy hands at Conflict Kitchen have only known me as Henry, as have countless baristas and the popular store clerks in the Strip District.
There’s no easy way out of this. Once a person passes his or her critical period in the first few years of their life, they never are able to learn language as well as when they were a baby. But it is still possible to teach adults new languages though, even nonsensical computer- generated ones with randomly chosen sounds, and experimental findings show that few things are as important in late language acquisition as repeated exposure and rehearsal. This just means that we have to plow through, consciously making the effort to not use skewed language, in a way that will get others to adopt that manner of speaking as well. People shouldn’t be ashamed to add to the diversity of our vocabulary—even if it is just a single, unfamiliar name—while the rest of us should take care to take it in with an inclusive attitude, as something different, but not separate.
Even more hopeful is that for us as a society, instead of individual people, I believe the critical period to change is now. We have largely passed the violent stage of the struggle that has been the Civil Rights Movement in the sixties, which gave birth to this cause; we have been made abundantly aware of the dangers of racial prejudice, and we are open to further solutions to improve the ways things are. It is our generation’s job to adopt a more inclusive way of communicating and pass it on to the next, who will have their own fight to battle in this arena. Failure to change now will only lock us into our current ways, and make change difficult for us in the future.
When given the full list of ways to pronounce my name, nobody has yet to go with the option to call me Henry. The willingness is there, and the people are ready. We only have to take this eagerness for change, and act.