Names can be closely tied with people’s cultural identity. For people who are recent transplants in America, it is a common practice to adopt an ‘American’ name. In some ways, it’s seen as the first step in assimilation to your new home. In my experience, my nickname that my classmates called me by when I first came to America became my de facto American name. To my family and the Korean people that I knew, I am Sunyoung, but to everyone else, I’m known as Sunny.
In some ways, how I thought about myself also shifted based on which name I was being called by. As Sunyoung, I was subconsciously more deferential and measured in my manners, but as Sunny, I was outspoken and animated. It was also jarring when the two worlds crossed over and my mom would refer to me as Sunny instead of Sunyoung to my friends. The name Sunny, felt out of place when uttered by my mom, and it somehow made me feel less connected to her. Inadvertently, the two names had given me two personas that were occasionally at odds with each other.
When I entered the ‘grown-up world’ post college, I spent some time thinking about which name I should go by. This time, I wanted to choose a name that represented who I am instead of having a name that just kind of stuck around because it was easier to remember. Was I a Sunny or Sunyoung? Did it matter? I worried that Sunny was too casual and that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a professional. But I was equally worried about being Sunyoung since as Sunyoung, I felt too formal and a little too foreign.
In the end, both names felt like parts of me, and I continue the practice of being known as Sunyoung to the Korean people in my lives and Sunny to all the others. At lease this time, it was by my choice that I’m introducing myself as Sunny, and not because my other name was too hard or foreign to be remembered.
Thanks to this intimate experience of knowing how much names can mean to one’s identity, naming our first child, who would be mixed race, was much more complicated than perusing a list of baby names online. I noticed that many of our friends who’re in a mixed-race relationships gave their kids an ‘American’ first name and opted to use their middle name to honor their cultural heritage. This practice seemed reasonable enough when I didn’t have my own kids, but when I was faced with naming our own kids, I started to worry about the potential implications of this naming ‘system.’
To me, using conventionally ‘American’ names as first names felt like deprioritizing the other heritage as the lesser of the two. Would my child not feel as connected to her Korean heritage? Would giving her names from different cultures make her feel torn when she thinks about her cultural identity?
Something else that bothered me was the subtle implication that you could only be real American by adopting a name from a list of preconceived names. Why couldn’t someone named Tae-hyeok be just as American as someone called John?
Despite all the angst and debate, we did succumb to the common practice of using an ‘American’ name as the first name and Korean name as her middle name. Culturally identity aside, we didn’t want our kid to have to endure 20 kids butchering her name every year at school and commit her to a lifetime of spelling bee, always having to spell out her name each time she meets someone new.
It is my sincerest hope that my kids grow up embracing all parts of themselves and find the world to be just as welcoming which ever name they choose to go by.