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.
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.