Shifting identity: Growing up different in Australia

The name I use is no longer the one I had at my birth.


It’s the name my grandfather gave me. It is a strong Korean name. A masculine one with a tender meaning. Smooth. Tranquil. Easy. Gentle. It encompasses all those meanings and my grandfather’s hopes for me.

My grandfather was a strong man — old school. Men were the head of the household, and everyone jumped when he said jump. He didn’t finish high school but made his fortune through hard work and shrewd judgement. We differed so much. But I loved and respected him as much as I feared him.

I’ve had many names throughout my life.

Growing up in Australia meant I’m not called by my Korean name anymore.

It’s now only for my mother and father. That name is not even for my brother, who is two years younger than me. He respects me and our culture by calling me Noona instead. It means “elder sister” and is only said by boys and men to women older than them.

It’s my oldest name, but I am no longer comfortable with people who are not family calling me by my Korean name.

People curious of my Western name and Eastern face have often asked about my “real” name. And I can’t help cringing inside when they try to form the words in their mouths. Their tongues unfamiliar with the form, it comes out all wrong.

I too am no longer sure I can say it without an Australian accent.

I’ve discovered some Koreans may not call me by my Korean name. I wasn’t born in the country and grew up outside it. They know who I am and may call me by my Catholic Saint’s name instead – Agnes.

I am comfortable with that. Sometimes, I feel they know me in a way many Australians struggle to understand. From “where are you from?” to “what’s your heritage?” I’ve come to realise what many were asking was “why are you not Australian like me?”

It isn’t easy when all you want to do is belong.

For the record, Agnes is a name I’ve had for a long time. While I wasn’t born with it, I’ve had it since I was baptised into the Catholic church as a baby. It is my parent’s name for me, and I was named after my aunt who set them up.

Then I met and married a man outside my culture. He was an Australian man with an Anglo-English heritage who knew nothing of Korea or our culture. He grew up without a single asian friend until he moved to Sydney as an adult.

For a time it was challenging to be the bridge between two worlds, trying to help my parents understand my future husband, and teaching my soon to be life-partner to be more cross-culturally aware.

I realised how incredibly different Korea was to Australia. One culture was communal and hierarchical. The other was individualistic and proudly egalitarian.

You let people in by letting your guard down and treating each other as equals in one culture. One could even go further and say there could be some teasing involved. Which is the absolute opposite thing you must do when addressing your soon to be mother in law in the other one.

The only similarity I could see was my husband and my parents both valued honesty.

It was the only thing I could work with to keep people I loved talking to each other.

During this time, my surname also changed. For a moment, it felt like no one could cope with it. I still think some people can’t deal with the western name on my asian face.

I didn’t change my name to look good on a CV. I didn’t change my name because I wanted to deny my heritage. I changed my name because I loved my husband.

“You can take my name, or you can stick with yours. I’m easy,” he said a few weeks before our wedding. It was something we had never really discussed. The comment was tossed casually over dinner.

I hadn’t thought of it before, and I was stumped. Koreans don’t change their surnames. It is something handed down through the centuries. It is almost disrespectful to the ancestors who came before us who lived and died by that name.

I thought long and hard. All through our relationship, I was the one asking my husband to grow and change. I was the one who told him he must accept the different, the other, for our marriage to have a chance at surviving.

I watched him struggle with our family customs. I saw him treat my family with honour as best as he could. I decided I could change my name for him.

I will always remember the night I told him that I’d take his name. He was so pleased. And it thrilled me to know I could make him that happy. I knew I had made the right decision.

It’s a decision I made almost twenty years ago now. And I won’t lie. There are times when I want my old name back. My clan is a Chinese-Korean one that dates back thousands of years. The family has had its ups and downs throughout history. But I am proud of my heritage. And, from time to time, I miss representing it.

Yet, for better and for worse, I promised to share my life with my husband. I am now a part of his family as much as he is a part of mine. Sharing the same name reminds me we are a team and we’re making our own little history together.

There is something quite wonderful about that.

Featured image by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

31 thoughts on “Shifting identity: Growing up different in Australia

  1. Aggie, you touched on something fundamental in your post; naming. Do I use my nickname, or my given name Rebecca? As a woman do I change my name when I marry? First time I hyphenated, second time I kept my last name. These are important questions, how do we choose to define ourselves. I can’t say I’ve made the right decisions according to what my grandmother expected. But I do feel I made the right decision for me. Thanks for bringing up so many key issues by sharing your story.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you Rebecca! Yes you’re right. it seems to be a consideration quite common to most women who live in the west. I wonder if it ends up impacting us in different ways. Ways that men don’t consider.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What a beautiful post. I just love this–especially that honesty is a shared thing among people from different backgrounds. And that’s enough sometimes, isn’t is? In some of my fiction writing, I tackle the whole name conundrum, and what it means when you gain another name (or leave another name behind). Do male writers concern themselves with this as much, I don’t know. When I was a college student, I learned Moon was also a popular Korean last name; I got plenty of direct mail I couldn’t read! I only knew kids in school made fun of my name–but now I don’t think that kids know what “mooning” someone is. Please, no one tell my 10-year-old boys!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Yes. I will keep that one a secret. Moon is most definitely a popular Korean name. You would have confused a lot of people in cyberspace! As for name changes, I really don’t think men consider it too much. If I think too hard on it, it gets me a little grumpy. But there you go!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. OH, girl, can I ever relate. Got to love name stories! I’ll have to read your link. Here’s mine:

    Asian face, white last name – check! But it’s my maiden name, unlike you, I was born with it. But I loved your story and how happy your husband was when you decided to change it.

    And since living in Asia, I get to experience how Thais can’t say American names properly. It’s okay. Names are tough, I’ve decided. After all, I hope my students forgive me for saying their names a little differently 😛

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh man! That would be a little more frustrating. I long for a world where people would just let us be. Thanks for sharing your link! I’ll have a read.

      And you’ve gone the other way! Living in the east after growing up in the west. Feel free to share more links to your stories here!

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Brilliant! Just read it. It just adds another layer to our identity doesn’t it? But it’s more about coping with other people’s reactions to it than the name itself!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is beautiful and profound… the linked post as well. In one of my own posts, I equated the names we accept for ourselves as a sort of “barometer of the soul”. In another, I realized that if there is some single-word distillation of “me”, it’s contained within one of the kanji my parents used when they named me. What we call ourselves, that’s a powerful thing.

    As for marriage… In my US passport, my family name is hyphenated, with my family name first, husband’s second. In Japan, families are supposed to have one surname, though there’s no rule about whether it comes from the husband or wife. I think there’s an exception for foreigners, such as my husband. Regardless, I’m not registering a new jitsuin hanko. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. LT!! Hello! Yes, I agree. The names people call us are powerful. It sort of marks what other people think we are and it is difficult not to absorb and internalise that. I love the idea of a hyphenated name. But it was an option we didn’t take for various reasons. Please share the link to your post in the comments! Thank you so much for stopping by. It’s always lovely to see you.


      1. Thank you! Very kind!
        I see that you’ve read the first one. Going back and re-reading these, I see how some perceptions about my own name have changed over time. Perhaps seeing my mom rather differently over the years softened me a little. I also realize that Asian given names still carry meanings in a way possibly more tangible than Western names, even if only through the symbols used to convey sounds.
        Replace the [DOT]s

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Thank you for sharing those links LT. One centred on the significance of beauty and the take home point for me in the second post came right at the end – be discerning about taking on the identity others place on you. Was so happy to find your long connection to Aomori too! I was born there. In a town that no longer exists. I think the only thing remaining is Namioka train station!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing your story. I learned a few things by reading it. As a woman with an Anglo background, I changed my name to my husband’s too, but that was a sign of the times – it was expected, and everyone did it. These days, many young women who marry don’t change their names, and I like that. When my husband and I divorced, people asked if I would revert to my own name…but by that time I had used his name longer than I had my own, and I decided not to. I use it professionally, and it means I still have the same name as my children. Researching my family tree recently, I discovered more than one change of name – who knows for what reason? So what we think is our family name, has been changed by our forebears for their purposes or reasons. It’s a mystery.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for sharing your story too. I didn’t think of other circumstances when I made the decision to change my name. I am not sure what I’d do if our marriage ended unexpectedly. All I know was I wanted to make my husband happy as well.

      Liked by 2 people

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