My name is Sarah Hong.
I chose my name when I was five year old because my dad wanted me to have a name that can be easily pronounced by English speakers. I chose “Sarah”, specifically with the letter H at the end, because it means “lady” or “princess” in Hebrew. I didn’t even know what Hebrew was; I just wanted to be a princess.
When I went to Canada for the first time in 2005, I introduced myself as a
“princess”. My friends, who were usually named after family members or someone important, often said that they’re jealous of the fact that I got to choose my own name. When a substitute teacher would look at the roster and say my Korean name, Hyun Kyoung, I could put my hands up high and say, “Um, actually, you can call me Sarah.” (It wasn’t until I was in high school when I started to feel embarrassed when they said my Korean name in class – but that’s another story).
It was also easy to assimilate. I soon found out that everywhere I go, there will be someone named “Sarah” or “Sara” or even “Sahra” – whatever the spelling was, however you pronounced, they were all relatively the same. You weren’t identical, but close enough for people to not question your name and accept the name as it is. Everyone knew a Sara(h), and I was just one of them.
What I didn’t know at the age of nine was that your last name is also a part of your name, a part of your identity.
It is definitely not a typical “English” surname.
It wasn’t something common, like Brown, or McDonald, and it wasn’t intricate enough so that people could identify or guess where your parents were from (besides that they’re Asian). It was short. One syllable. In 2005, people couldn’t tell.
Are you Chinese? Japanese? Korean?
Those three questions always followed when people looked at me. I would tell them – I’m Korean – and they would say – Interesting. I thought you were Chinese. I would respond – nope, although I hear that a lot.
Classes got bigger and bigger as I got older and older. In high school, it wasn’t 3 Sarahs in the entire grade but rather 3 Sarahs in one class. Sarah Hong – two words, three syllables, became my name. A very western name accompanied by a very Asian last name. It always sounded so odd to me. But it wasn’t just me. Christopher Wang. Darren Yu. Krista Lee. Jennifer Cho. Most of my Asian friends had an English name accompanied by one syllable last names.
There are so many of us, and with last names like “Lee” or “Yi” or “Hong”, people confuse us. Are you Korean or Chinese? We’re all just clumped under a category. Does it even matter to you that our culture is different? Do our history matter?
Is this what it means to be Asian living abroad? To have a western first name and an Asian last name? To have a name that’s not of my language, my culture, so it’s easier for people to say? To find a generic name? What does it mean to be “integrated into the society”? What does it mean when I am a “model minority” – a minority that’s subservient and submissive enough to tolerate – and how do I break out of this circle? What is intersectionality? How do all my experiences and social identities define who I am?
How does my experience as a bisexual Korean feminist who has studied in Canada and the US for half of her life shape me into a 24 year old woman who thinks she’s grown but really is confused as hell all the time?
It’s going to take a while to figure it out.