It’s rare, it’s unique ― and it’s all mineWhen I was in high school in New York, my parents, like all education-obsessed Korean parents, couldn’t bear to see me idle away my summer vacation. So, they sent me off to spend six weeks at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, studying math and writing. The prospect of a summer full of calculus equations made it feel like I was shipping out to boot camp. All I was missing was the buzz cut.
Since Phillips was a posh boarding school for WASPs, I was surprised when I arrived to find the campus crawling with Koreans. More than half the summer school students were either Korean-Americans or Korean nationals. Obviously mine weren’t the only pushy, education-conscious parents.
Seven of the 10 girls in our dorm were Korean, which, oddly, made me feel a little awkward. Only about 1 in 10 students at my high school in New York was Korean, and I preferred being, well, unique.
The Korean students who came for the ESL program kept to themselves and only spoke Korean. When they discovered I spoke flawless English, they shunned me assuming I was some kind of spoiled Korean-American.
The Korean-Americans were a clubby bunch, too. They didn’t hang out with anybody else ― especially the Korean-Koreans. And they shunned me too, after seeing me speaking Korean with some ESL students.
It was unbelievable how quickly the cliques formed. We were ethnically identical, yet so far apart in terms of mentality. And I was stuck in the middle of this Great Divide, unable to identify with either group.
The Korean-Americans, with their Anglicized names and Gap shirts seemed so cool to me. But even if I dressed the part, I felt out of place because of my name.
Debbie Lee, the first of the girls to strike up a conversation, seemed surprised to learn that I spoke English. “I never thought with your name that you could,” she said.
My dorm mate, Sophia Koo, asked why I hadn’t changed my name. I mumbled something about how it was easy to pronounce, even for Americans. “But it makes you seem like a Korean-Korean,” Sophia objected.
At the time, I actually felt ashamed of my name, but not anymore. Why not? Because I’ve been racking my brain for the past 10 years to come up with the perfect English name for myself ― something rare and unique ― and have come to the realization that the name my great-grandfather gave me is rare and unique.
by Choi Jie-ho