Call Me By My (American) Name
Sometime last year, my friends and I were chatting, and somehow—I don’t remember how—I had mentioned that my name, Monica, is not the name I was born with.
A (white) friend asked me what it was, and I responded that the name I was born with—my Korean name—is Yejoo. He opened his mouth, tried to pronounce it, and asked me what it meant. I shrugged and said I didn’t know and that it probably meant a grassy field, or something.
Currently, I know now that that’s not actually what it means. I’ve had to ask my mom multiple times now because for some reason the meaning of my name immediately slips from the recesses of my mind. It means something simple: bright all over.
I remember during this conversation, I felt comfortable talking about my name. It was unlike another time, in another place, when I had felt differently.
When I was sixteen, my parents and I were able to obtain American citizenship. I skipped half a day of school to go to a government building with my parents and to swear on a Bible and repeat the Pledge of Allegiance, like I had to do every morning at school.
A month later, I was back in another nondescript government building to get my first name officially, legally, changed from Yejoo to Monica.
I had been going by Monica since elementary school. My grandmother had given me this name, and out of convenience, I had used it for nearly all my life in America, only going by Yejoo for my family members.
In middle school, I felt especially insecure about it. I had just moved a year before in fifth grade. As the new kid, I already stuck out. Most people had been living here their whole lives and were still friends with their friends from kindergarten. Meanwhile, I had spent two and a half years of my life in South Korea and moved two times previously within New Jersey.
When my Korean name was called on the first day of the school year, I could feel my cheeks burn with embarrassment as the teacher mispronounced it and I saw my fellow students smirk. A beat later, I would stammer, asking the teacher to call me by my American name, Monica.
The same mortifying situation would happen again and again when there was a substitute teacher. I would feel embarrassment all over again for not having a name like Sarah, Jessica or Kate.
Sometimes, when my white peers would ask me my Korean name, it was not out of curiosity; when I would tell them, they would repeat it back to me, but exaggerate it so they were saying Yeeeeeeeeejoo instead of Yejoo.
In eighth grade, I requested to have my name appear as Monica in the school system, rather than Yejoo. Eventually, it got done. Despite on attendance sheets I was still Yejoo Kim, I now had a note next to my name that stated, “Prefers to go by Monica.”
Names can indicate who we are to other people often in a way that might undermine us or put us at a disadvantage.
Take, for example, workplace discrimination. Numerous studies show anti-Black racism in hiring has not changed since 1989 and anti-Latinx racism in hiring has only decreased slightly since then. That was thirty years ago. That was the year The Little Mermaid came out and the year Taylor Swift was born.
In one study, researchers created resumes for Black and Asian applicants, some of which included information that clearly marked their racial identity, while others were “whitened,” such as by having an Americanized name. They found 25% of Black candidates and 21% of Asian candidates received callbacks if they had whitened resumes, while only 10% of Black candidates and 11.5% of Asian candidates did if they included racial/ethnic details.
If a person of color has an “ethnic” sounding name, there is a likely chance they may not be asked for an interview. In fact, it’s a pretty high one: companies are more than twice as likely to call back minority applicants with whitened resumes for interviews.
Going by my American name was a way to protect myself from embarrassment and insecurity and mockery. And though it wasn’t my intention then, it can also protect me from potential discrimination from employers.
It’s no coincidence that I legally changed my name from Yejoo to Monica around the time that I felt most insecure about my dual identities and wanted to emphasize my “Americanness.” Now that I feel more comfortable about navigating my identity as a Korean-American, I sometimes think about the possibility of having everyone call me by my Korean name instead of just my family—a thought born out of a recent desire to feel more “Korean,” But, it’s just a thought, and for now, I still go by Monica.
My Korean name hasn’t been completely erased from its existence. It still sits there, in legal documentation. Legally, my name is Monica Yejoo Kim. It's ironic, in a way, because Koreans don’t have middle names.
While my Korean name has been relegated to the backseat, and while most of the people who know me know me as Monica, my Korean name still exists, as long as my family still calls me Yejoo, and as long as I still remember the name I was born with.
So, call me by my American name. But, know I have a Korean one, too.