My Name Is Wrong

This week’s episode of Code Switch from NPR deals with “difficult” names — what it means for someone to say your name correctly, and for you to expect that from them. It’s a great listen (funny, even!).

The whole discussion made me think about my own name, which is something I’m forced to do fairly often, since I’m Korean-American and have not-the-easiest-to-pronounce last name, which is not a Korean name. Sometimes when people ask about my name, they do so thinking it’s Asian, but they’re unsure what kind. “Haruch, huh? So, um, that’s … ” And they’ll trail off, hoping I’ll fill in the blank.

It’s definitely better than the “what are you?” question, but I generally don’t ask anyone the provenance of their name unless there’s a reason to do so, and even then not unless we know each other. And sometimes I just don’t feel up to this question, because the answer isn’t short or easy, and I’m pretty tired of talking about it. It’s from the Czech Republic, by way of Ukraine, but I’m not. I’m Korean. I was adopted. My mom’s side is Croatian. Nice to meet you, too.

Anyway. Maybe Steve Haruch isn’t my “real” name, even if it is my legal name, and in any case it definitely wasn’t my first.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to a Korean restaurant way out in the Chicago suburbs, and while we were there, they asked the waiter if he would write down my Korean name in Korean. They said it out loud for him — “Oh Yong Chan” — and he wrote it in hangul on a napkin. As I got older, I really treasured that little handwritten note. It felt like some sort of secret password to a world I had left behind. And I practiced and practiced imitating the script on that square of paper.

But, of course, if you don’t know an alphabet, you can easily misinterpret a lot in someone’s handwriting. So when I learned to write hangul later on, I realized how badly I had been writing “my own name” all that time. It was kind of embarrassing, but at least I could do it right now.

That is, until a few years ago, when I looked at an old photograph of myself as an orphan in Korea. In it, I have a piece of paper with my name and my case number on it, pinned to my shirt. Since I can read Korean now, at least phonetically, I realized that the waiter had misinterpreted. That “aw” sound in “Yong,” as my parents pronounced it, sits between two different Korean vowel sounds — so someone might hear it as 영 (“young ), or 용 (“yong” with a long O). And the one the waiter chose was not the one that was pinned to my shirt.

So, I got my own name wrong. Twice.

As I met and talked to more Korean adoptees — and by the way, more than 160,000 Korean children were sent overseas for adoption in the years after the war — I realized that this name may well have been assigned to me by a social worker. It might not be my name at all.

And there’s another perspective to consider in all of this. I think about these words a lot, from a letter written by a Korean woman who gave up her daughter for adoption: “I chose your name by myself. You will remain in my heart forever with this name.”

So what is my name, really? Maybe I’ll never hear it spoken again.

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