I’ll be at a party, clutching a plastic cup of something that probably doesn’t deserve to be called beer and making the motions of small talk but actually just shouting to be heard over the loud music. A tall econ major and I will be talking about something utterly banal, maybe an observation about the number of people packed into the dark, stuffy house. I’ll be bored to tears. He’ll introduce himself halfway through our conversation. His name will be Brent, or Pat, or something equally monosyllabic. Like one of Mitt Romney’s sons or something. Then he’ll ask for my name, and I’ll say it, slow and exaggerated like I always do when I meet someone for the first time, and I’ll see in his eyes that it has not registered. Maybe he couldn’t hear me over the din of the party, or maybe he had no intention of ever learning it. Either way, he will not ask for clarification. “Cool,” he’ll say. Then we’ll move on to other, less personal topics.
It was my grandfather who named me. In Korean, you traditionally have two ways of writing your name: one in hangul, one in hanja. Hangul is Korean, and tells you how to pronounce your name. Hanja is Chinese, and tells you the meaning. Each hangul character can correspond to several hanja characters, each of which has a slightly different meaning. I imagine my grandfather sitting at his desk at night, poring over our family’s jokbo, or family tree. His neck is bent and his eyes are squinted in the effort to make out the names in the faded document. There are names of people he never knew and names of people he loves dearly. He will draw on them for inspiration, perhaps taking a character from one, the sound of a consonant melding with a vowel from another.
Both the characters of my given name mean “wisdom.” I remember this fact bitterly on nights when I’ve been drinking and getting weepy thinking about all I haven’t achieved and every dumb thing I’ve ever said and deciding whether I should turn up the Sufjan Stevens before or after I pour myself some more cheap wine. It’s quite a name to live up to, Wisdom-Wisdom. It couldn’t have been something more attainable, like Mediocre-Average? Acceptable-Normal, maybe?
When I was in fifth grade, I moved to a different school district and my parents thought it would be easier if I had an American name. Something white, something nondescript, something easy to pronounce. Everyone at my new school accepted this rebranding, not understanding the momentous change I had undergone. I went by this name for exactly two years before dropping it in favor of my given name. Even at age ten I knew I was only pretending.
After years of spelling my name out to impatient baristas with sharpies and cups in hand, I have resorted to giving out my last name in coffee shops. Sometimes they’ll yell out “Lee” and two or three other Asians who are similarly sick of having to repeat themselves will also come to the counter to pick up their drink. We’ll give each other sheepish grins, figure out who the drink really belongs to, and bask in the discomfort of the Starbucks employee who silently hands over the coffee.
My dad tells me that my name is beautiful, that it makes me special. Once we went skiing and I watched as the bored, pimply twentysomething running the ski rental counter rattled off a list of the different rental packages that were offered. My dad asked for clarification. The rental kid repeated himself, voice dripping with condescension, face ugly with sarcasm. I had to restrain myself from shaking him. From yelling at him, from telling him about my dad’s PhD, that he is the smartest person I’ve ever met, that he does important, good work. I wanted to make him understand how much my dad loves riding bikes on Saturday mornings, how strong-willed he is when he argues, how he has an incredibly inquisitive mind that devours information on all topics. The way he calmly gathered his family around him to announce that his mother had passed away, how he never allowed himself to grieve in front of us. How he used to be a teacher, and how much he still loves to give lectures to his kids, whether it’s on long car rides or in the supermarket or in art museums.
Instead, I stepped in and handled the transaction. When the kid asked who was doing the renting, I told him my name. And then I said it again. And then I slowly spelled it out for him, never breaking my gaze.
People get it wrong sometimes, and that’s okay. It’s not simply that I’m sick of repeating myself, the syllables losing meaning with each iteration until I’m just making sounds that even I don’t recognize. It’s not the amount of racially charged microaggression it has sparked (enough to fill several depressing books, I’m sure). Really, I’m still in mourning over the part of my childhood I’ve lost and will never regain spent searching for a pen or mini license plate with my name on it in museum gift shops.
I have only one picture of my grandfather, taken several months before he passed away. Whenever I look at this picture with my mom, her voice is soft and wistful as she tells me how much he doted on me. “You were his first grandchild. The two of you were inseparable”. My mom was also the first grandchild in the family, and her grandfather named her too.
In the photo we’re outside and I’m just a baby and he’s carrying me and leaning against a fence. It must have been winter, because we’re all bundled up and I’m basically just a set of eyes barely visible under a tightly swaddled blanket and a silly hat. I can hear my grandfather conversing with someone just off-camera. He leans in to whisper something to me, and his breath escapes his body in frozen clouds of spun sugar that hang in the air until an unseen eddy of wind shatters them into pieces.
I used to take art lessons at a small studio along with a cohort of other raggedy kids around my age. Our teacher was a woman named Heather who had a high, fluttery voice and wore long skirts that swirled around her as she walked. We spent hours in that cluttered studio messing about with clay and paint and oil pastels. Once Heather was showing the class how to draw faces. We had no model, so she looked around the room, pointed at me, and in front of everyone, drew my face. As she sketched she described aloud my wispy eyebrows, the glow of the overhead lights on the curve of my cheek, the few strands of hair that had fallen in front of my eyes. The bit of white pastel was alive in her hand as it flew across the dark expanse of paper. Heather looked at me with such intensity that she seemed to forget I was more than a collection of shapes and angles for her eyes to devour. The class watched her watching me, perhaps searching in vain for some hidden meaning they couldn’t quite grasp. This is what I think about whenever I look at the picture of my grandfather. Was there something he saw in my face when I was born? Did he have a feeling? Or is my name just wishful thinking? The more I consider it, the farther away the answer feels.
Babynames.com urges me to change my name with the help of their Random Renamer. “Want to know what it feels like to be someone else?” I got Kiona Estella, and it feels OK.
The Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator says my name is Cybernetic Tiger, which somehow makes more sense to me.
I wonder what it’s like to be in charge of the naming of another human person. Maybe my grandfather didn’t feel the weight of this responsibility, instead picking my name off the top of his head and hoping that it sounded okay. But I like to think that he understood what my dad’s request entailed. Maybe as he pondered potential names he pictured me on my first day of school, all chubby cheeks and pigtails, or summer afternoons spent hiking in the mountains together. There must have been a world of possibilities contained within these thoughts- things that could have been if my dad hadn’t gotten a job in Princeton, and if my grandfather hadn’t passed away soon after my second birthday. I like to think he took a long time picking my name, searching through family records to find characters that had been used in names in my family for generations. Maybe he stopped to look up certain meanings or to try out a prospective name, whispering it to himself quietly so it stilled in the air for only a second before dissipating into nothingness.
Sometimes, after I finished my homework and sat at the kitchen table with my mom, I would ask her to write out my name in hanja. I loved watching her make the marks on a piece of scrap paper, her movements fluid and assured. I would stare at the characters until they swam in front of my eyes. Each swooping line was a personal friend, every firm dash a close confidante. Watching my mom write my name was too much fun for me to ever learn how to do it myself. It was a treat that I had to ask for and could be denied.
It’s a rainy summer afternoon and I’m sitting on the balcony of my second floor apartment with my boyfriend, watching it all come down. It’s the kind of rainstorm that makes everyone breathe a little lighter, glad for the brief respite from the oppressive heat. The giant leaves of the tree that sometimes grows weird, unidentifiable fruits bounce in the torrential downpour. I can see the little black cat that lives in the backyard taking refuge under the neighbor’s dilapidated old truck. We perch on the cheap plastic chairs, not saying a word as a fine mist coats our faces and bodies. I’m thinking about ghostly white sketches on black paper, about possibilities unrealized, of yellowed photographs. These thoughts are so familiar to me that I feel the shape of them in my head when I close my eyes. They fill the space inside my skull, a balloon bobbing undisturbed among the cerebellum and the hypothalamus and resting gently against the backs of my eyes. All of a sudden I’m filled with a desperate, all-consuming need to articulate my thoughts. They have to be named. I turn to him and he cocks his eyebrow, waiting for me to speak. I open my mouth and it’s there, the words are right there but-
As quickly as they came they’re gone, slipping out of my open mouth and dissolving into the damp air.
Hea-Ream Lee is a senior at Wesleyan University.