My daughter and I were in the children’s section of a bookstore when a white woman asked my daughter what her name was. Yu-Rhee was three years old at the time. “You’ll never see that name in any of these books,” the woman said. She was not trying to be hurtful or malicious; her tone suggested she was just making an observation.
That night I thought back to the moment I lost my Korean name, Yu-Kyung. It was March 1975, and we had just immigrated to Canada. School staff told me and my mother that taking Western first names would help us fit in more easily as my classmates would tease me because of my funny sounding name. “Kyung” sounded too much like “Kong” as in “King Kong.” My family accepted that sacrificing our names was just part of the immigrant process. We had no choice; it was school board policy.
Decades later, as an ESL teacher at the beginning of my teaching career, I openly encouraged my students to take a “Canadian” name. It would be to their advantage in the long run. I even showed them academic studies that examined the relationship between people’s given names and their job prospects.
I also told them it would make things easier in the classroom. Calling out student names during attendance was anxiety-inducing for me. When I came across an unfamiliar name, I cringed at the thought of mispronouncing it and embarrassing the student and myself. Over the years, I’ve always been grateful for the students who adopted Western names — it made my life as their teacher simpler.
Most newcomer students don’t need to be encouraged to adopt a new name. One student didn’t want her teachers to mistake her for an ESL student who struggled with the English language. Her country of origin was Hong Kong and she spoke English more fluently than Cantonese. Other students have told me they didn’t want to burden their teachers by having them learn their foreign-sounding names. I understood and accepted that.
We have laws that protect us from discrimination, but it’s difficult to get around our unconscious biases and judgments, especially in the classroom. As educators we say we value diversity, but we discriminate against our students. We teach books that we are familiar with and reinforce the same assumptions that we were taught. We see taking away unfamiliar names and replacing them as levelling the playing field. Young people and their families are willing to lose part of their identity because we encourage it.
I’ve discovered that it’s when I’m most uncomfortable in the classroom that I’m primed to effect personal and professional change. It took a student calling me a hypocrite for not following my desire to write to complete my debut novel, “Kay’s Lucky Coin Variety.” Recently, another student asked why Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, Appa from CBC’s “Kim’s Convenience,” could use his full name when I only used my Korean initials. Didn’t I value my Korean name? she asked.
Then it hit me. I was part of the problem. How patronizing or insensitive had I sounded while advising a student to consider taking a new name? My intent now seemed irrelevant. I had unwittingly reinforced the same message that I was told as a child.
We are changing more than we realize when we recommend students take a new name. We are asking students to disconnect from their families and culture. The message is that their “outsider name” isn’t worth our time and effort to learn. This should no longer be acceptable to anyone.
It’s taken me a long time to realize how the loss of my given name impacted my world view and how it affected my ability to learn in school. All the stories I wrote as a child were of white characters and white families. I felt lucky that at least I could marry a white man and lose my last name, which gave away my Asian origin. The impact has been long-lasting. At 52, I have long debated whether or not I should include my Korean name on the cover of my book.
I’ve started telling my students I might not get their names right on my first attempt but by making the effort, I feel more connected to them. We talk about creating safe, inclusive spaces. This can only be done by accepting and respecting our students, and surely their given names should be the first step. As a diverse society, we need to reflect and interrogate our unconscious biases. We need to keep sharing stories that reflect the lives of young people and their many social and cultural identities.
My daughter is now 21 years old. My debut children’s picture book has allowed her Korean name, Yu-Rhee, to appear in a book. As its author, “Once Upon An Hour” has also enabled me to reclaim and proudly share my own long lost name with readers across Canada.