aapi, asian american, Essay, Korean-American, Literature, philosophy

The Thing That’s in a Korean Name: Goodbye “@aechjay”

I had the username “aechjay” since I was 15-years-old back in 2002 when I created it as a screen name for AOL instant messenger. I had been experimenting with lots of screen names since 1998. The one that I settled on was “aechjay” and it stayed with me for the last 20 years. I used it for all my social media sites since then.

“Aechjay” is the written pronunciation of two letters: “h” and “j.” This has always been like a secret code between myself and my most trusted individuals in my life. there are very few people in my life who still refer to me as “HJ” in conversations or in correspondences because today I go by “Grace.”

“HJ” are the initials of my two-syllable middle name, which was not always my middle name. It represented my given name at birth when first emerged as a human being on this earth in Busan, Korea. My father named me “Hyun-ju.” “Hyun” is 어질 현. It means benevolence. (It can also mean dizziness and chaos in some contexts though I don’t know the specifics of this function; but I love that meaning.) “Ju” is 구슬 주 and is used to describe marbles and pearls, denoting beauty, wealth, and royalty.

Hyun-ju is a very common name for girls/women in Korea. When I go to hair salons in K-Town, one of the stylists is usually named Hyun-ju. growing up, I ran into many Hyun-jus at Korean churches in New York and New Jersey.

“Hyun” is difficult for most English speakers to pronounce. It’s the same reason why everyone mispronounces the car company Hyundai. Ever since I moved to Brooklyn at age 5 with my parents, not a single teacher or peer pronounced my name correctly. They all had their own interpretation of how to pronounce my name.

Hyun became “hai-un,” “hyoon,” “hun,” or “hen.” Sometimes it became their own hallucinatory sound—some of which I can’t even recall. They would simply decide for me what to call me.

When my family moved out of Brooklyn to Palisades Park, New Jersey in 1995, I was suddenly in a densely Korean populated part of the state, and everyone could pronounce my name correctly. but this was brief. In 1999, my family moved back to New York but to Rockland County, New York, and not just any part of Rockland County but a notoriously very white part of Rockland County which was known around the county for being very racist. I went to Pearl River High School and my parents officially changed my name to “Grace” on school records but not on Paper with a capital ‘P.’ By this, I mean that my family and I were still undocumented. The school records, therefore, would be very inconsistent with where “Grace” was placed, but where it mattered like the yearbook or the attendance sheet, my Korean name “Hyun-ju” was always there.

I would be terrorized whenever teachers on the first day of the school year or substitute teachers when teachers were absent read my name aloud in class. They would say a foreign sounding word as they read my name which made all the white students laugh hysterically and made the few minorities in class cower with embarrassment and shame that they projected onto me and received from me, which had them maintain distance from me for a few hours or days or sometimes the rest of high school.

It’s interesting. The school I attended was all-white and mostly Irish but I learned how to pronounce impossible names like Deirdre and Siobhan without issue. We all did. It’s as if we had to. Hyun-ju was not a part of that possibility. Hyun-ju never received such privilege.

Actress Uzo Aduba went home as a child and asked her mother to change her name to an anglicized name. Her mother told young Uzoamaka, “If [white people] can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

But my Korean parents did not have such confidence. Asian parents rarely have such confidence. They went to their Korean reverend and asked, “What should we rename Hyun-ju?” The reverend said the most common name among Korean American girls ever: “Grace.” There’s even a documentary about it called The Grace Lee Project by Grace Lee.

“Grace” and “Hyun-ju” are both extremely common in both Korean America and Korea.

In 2002, I adopted “aechjay” as my screen name as a way to both hide my Korean name and be unabashedly transparent about it but in code. Korean Americans in my social circles knew what it represented. To everyone else, it was a mystery.

I kept it ever since but over the years, I’ve been seeing “aechjay” on more websites. When I tried to get “aechjay” as my pinterest username, it was already taken by some white chick named Hannah something. Why the fuck does “Hannah” need “aechjay”? She doesn’t. Everyone here can pronounce “Hannah.” There are even some Koreans named “Hana.” So, what the fuck? Why would you take that away from me, Hannah?

In 2004, my family finally got our green cards. In 2005, my dad got his US naturalization which allowed me to get it because I was just two weeks short of being eighteen years old. Had I been eighteen, I would’ve had to file for naturalization all over. I remember the officer at ICE saying, “You’re a lucky girl.” I don’t remember if she called me by my name. What I do remember is that she herself was foreign. She was Chinese American and had an accent. She was short, stocky and wore glasses. She looked like a boss behind that large mahogany desk in a black office chair with two white men and the American flag standing behind her. She is pinned on my mental vision board for the rest of my life.

Now that we had our Papers, we could go and change our names. Guess what? My whole family changed our names. Both of my parents had the same trauma around their names because of racism and microaggressions they endured since 1992. Imagine having to live with shame with your own name. Not because there’s anything wrong with it, because there isn’t. It is a given name with love, deep meaning, honor, and connects us to our ancestry. But once we leave that physical point of ancestral connection, that name becomes disconnected as well, and the Others in the Other Land treat that name as a foreign object just as they objectify us as foreigners and therefore object to our very being. Not having my name pronounced correctly is like keeping me on an eternal doorstep of the place I thought I was invited to. I stand outside that brick building, downstairs, in front of the door while I can see the bright light through the window upstairs, and can hear the bustling, the networking, the communicating, the calling of one another’s names with such familiarity.

I hate that I was ever made to hate my name.

I changed my name officially to “Grace” in the year 2009 as I was graduating from college. As I was leaving with that new name on my passport to travel abroad, I felt a sadness, like a loss. I kept “Hyun-ju” as my middle name even though this is technically a lie because “Hyun-ju” is what came first, but there I was prioritizing “Grace” just to accommodate America’s mainstream—America’s whiteness, America’s English, America’s colonial history and its Anglo roots.

Rage. Confusion. Confliction. Amputation. I was an amputee with a foreign object sewn onto my body so that I could more easily be identified and more easily pronounced by Others here in this country and in Other Western countries where I traveled to with my new American passport.

When I started teaching at UCLA in 2016, I noticed that students had the option to list their preferred name on attendance sheets to avoid precisely the trauma I lived with all throughout elementary, middle and high school. This made me feel a little better because this choice not only allows international and emigre students to have agency in what to be called, but also gives space to gender queer students who have a preferred name.

But when I saw that the college I was teaching at had the preferred name as part of their system, I felt a light tissue layer of anger lift from me, but I continued to feel the heavy, dull pain of my name deep inside of me. Not sure where. Perhaps my pelvis. Shaped like a bean. Magnetic. Dark blue surrounded by red. Reverberating in a very low frequency of self-inflicted shame, projected rage, and non-stop confused sadness.

In 2016, I went to the Margaret Herrick Library to look at Hollywood archives for a research paper I was writing on Asian American masculinity in 1930s movies. The white librarian there started to jot down my middle name as he was checking me in with my driver’s license. I corrected him and said, “You’re writing down my middle name. Grace my first name.” He said, “Oh! Hey, don’t be embarrassed of your middle name.”

I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak another word. Throughout the rest of my time at the library, I felt such deep conflicted rage at what he said. What right did he have to tell me how to feel about my name? And what right did he have to lecture me as a white man who never lived with the burden, terror, shame and trauma as I had who went through over a decade and a half of loops to get the Papers so that I could officially change my name to “Grace” in order to accommodate people precisely like him? What right did he have to tell me to not be ashamed of something when people like himself are the reason why I have this shame in the first place? What the fuck? Seriously. What the fuck.

I still feel so much anger when I reflect on this moment. Even as I type this, I just want to throw a heavy metal object at his head. Maybe something like an Oscar. “You don’t get it, do you?”

But in 2021, I started to reconsider it while meditating for long periods of time. I’m not aechjay anymore. I’m more certain of who I am than I was in my teen years and throughout my 20s. I’m not aechjay anymore.

I’m Grace Jung.

It’s how I get introduced before I get up on stage to a crowd of people—my audience—who laugh at my words and bring a feeling of elation, acceptance, applause and praise.

It’s how I introduce myself on my podcast K-Drama School in my monologues.

It’s how I introduce myself at parties, at auditions when I slate, and in emails when I make a cold-contact. “Grace Jung” is what I see in the director credits when my film screens at film festivals. “Grace Jung” is what I see on the cover of my published books.

I saw two old friends from my recent past last night. The woman T is a filmmaker. The man A is an actor. They are Koreans from Kazakhstan—a married couple with a baby daughter. I haven’t seen them in over five years. They are still both very beautiful and still emanating love for each other and for everyone around them. T said, “You’ve transformed since I saw you last. You have a whole new identity.”

T was not wrong. “aechjay” was so close to my heart and my being, but it was also tied to my sense of shame around my name which came with anger/hatred/mistrust which are symptoms of racism in this county.

In 2021, when I was meditating, I kept feeling this deep urgency to let go of “aechjay” but I couldn’t. I would start to change it as a username handle and then immediately revert back to “aechjay.” But since last week, I have begun changing it here and there.

Even my website, which used to be aechjay.com is now gracejungcomedy.com.

Our identities change when our relationship with our past changes, and as that happens, our spirit changes. It finds realignment with where we are physically, mentally and emotionally. I have made leaps in the last two years that I never thought I could. During that process, I shed the heavy metal bean inside of me, too.

For now, goodbye, @aechjay.


April 2022 Shows! Los Angeles, Phoenix and Baltimore

4/6/22 – The Glendale Room – My Friends Kill Show at 8:30PM

4/9/22 – The Hollywood Improv – Main Room at 9:30PM

4/22/22 – The Pasadena Comedy – Stop Asian Hate Show at 9:30PM

4/26/22 – Stir Crazy Comedy Club, Phoenix, AZ, 7:00PM

4/29/22 – Baltimore, MD. The Lou Room at Zissimos Bar at 7PM and 9:30PM.

4/30/22 – Baltimore, MD. Draughts and Laughs 8:00PM

Book, cinema and media studies, Essay, Fiction, Film, philosophy

When the Movie is Better Than the Book: Drive My Car and I’m Thinking of Ending Things

A week before my 35th birthday, I kept having a recurring dream involving cars and me losing something significant to me. I was sitting in the back seat of a boxy old red car, being driven by someone I did not know. I pulled out my keys, cellphone and wallet, and placed them on the seat of the car, which had stopped on the freeway. I stepped out of the car, then the car just drove away, joining the myriad of other cars. I started to panic because everything that was important to me was in that car and now lost. I knew where to go though. I went to the airport because, for some reason, I knew that the car would be at the airport. When I got there, however, the airport parking lot had hundreds if not thousands of other cars parked and I could not fathom ever locating this boxy old red car to recover my belongings. Nevertheless, I felt determined to find it, and I began my search. Then the dream ended. I dreamt a similar dream a few days later in a slightly different iteration.

Then one late Saturday night, I felt determined to go and see Drive My Car by Ryusuke Hamaguchi—a film based on a Haruki Murakami short story called “Drive My Car” found in a short story collection called Men Without Women. I stopped reading Murakami books shortly after graduating college over ten years ago. There are many authors whose works I’ve stopped reading after college and it’s generally because I exhausted myself of their works by reading almost everything they’d ever written while I was in school. I read pretty much everything that Murakami published up until 2009, and I did the same with Vonnegut and Bukowski by 2010. Today, when I try to read works by these authors, I find myself losing interest almost immediately from the first paragraph in. It’s because I’ve lost interest in these authors. Even if they write anything new, it wouldn’t feel all that different to me because I feel as though I know their voice at this point, and it wouldn’t matter that they had anything new to say. It would be said in the same way. It’s like watching a Hong Sang-soo film. It’s the same film pretty much every single time. Even if I don’t see it, I know what I’m getting. And the window to access their worlds is now completely shut for me. This is not a sad thing. It’s just a shut window. I have other opened windows where my reading attention is now fully dedicated to.

That Saturday—February 19th—I was quite determined to locate a lamp. I had been eyeing this multi-headed, brass floor lamp from Target for a year now. My floor lamp had stopped working the night before, and I threw it out without any attachment because my heart was now set on this new lamp that I finally had a reason to purchase. I went to my go-to Target on Sepulveda, but they were sold out. I went to another Target in North Hollywood. They were also sold out. A staff member told me that the Target in Van Nuys—a location I was not even aware of despite it being the closest to where I’ve lived these last three years—had just one left in stock. When I went to that location, the one that they had in stock was the floor sample, and it was too big for me to fit in my car, so I left it behind. Instead, I purchased a way smaller lamp to tide me over till I could locate a floor lamp that satisfies me. Then I drove to Burbank to catch the last showing of Drive My Car.

My decision to see this film at such a late hour was very last minute but it came with some culmination. I had been thinking about seeing the film for a couple of weeks but I knew nothing about it. I only knew that there was a lot of Oscar buzz around it, and that it was based on fiction written by Murakami. While I do not choose to read Murakami, I am interested in seeing a filmic interpretation of his works since he is not the one delivering it. Perhaps this is a new way for me to access the authors I’d loved reading many years ago when I was a completely different person.

At the opening scenes, I was a bit shocked because the old boxy red car I’d seen in my dream was exactly what was on the screen. There’s an old red Saab in the film which I guess you could say is partially the film’s protagonist. It’s the subject of the film and the short story. The car. And one of the places that the car drives to is the airport. These are familiar coincidences for me. I’ve had precognitive dreams before, but this is the first time I’ve consciously witnessed a fusion between a film I’ve never seen before melding with my subconscious.

I was incredibly moved by this film. It’s a daring movie. Runtime is almost 3 hours. That’s bold. Even though I’m a film scholar, I hardly have the patience to sit through films longer than 90 minutes. If it’s longer than 90 minutes, it had better be a work of art. Drive My Car is a work of art. It is masterful and full of complex feeling. After seeing this movie, I immediately put Murakami’s book on hold at the library, and I finished reading the short story “Drive My Car” this morning. The fiction is far less interesting than the film, and Hamaguchi’s adaptation of it for the screen is a completely different and massive animal.

Hamaguchi developed whole new characters with whole new lives and entirely new circumstances for his film. Murakami’s short story is a very lightly etched sketch where the graphite meets the paper with the least amount of force. Hamaguchi’s script is an oil pastel drawing that covers every blank space of the page. Then let that oil pastel drawing sit over a hot plate. Watch the movements of the colors blend, meld and animate on the page’s surface. Then watch the waxy liquid rise and become full bodies with full movements. That is Hamaguchi’s film. The film version of Drive My Car has far more life, thought, question, and feeling than Murakami’s short story. The characters who resonated quite deeply with me are Yoo-na and Misaki. Yoo-na is not in the short story but she is the tender heart of the film. Weirdly, Hamaguchi’s film feels very much like a Murakami short story. The concept of Oto narrating stories in a trance-like state while having sex with her husband and her lovers feels Murakami-esque. The scene with Yoo-na leaving an impression on Kafuku with her sign language delivery in the audition feels Murakami-esque. When Yoo-na is later revealed to be Yoon-soo’s wife who was once a dancer but suffered an abortion which subsequently caused her to quit dancing and find acting feels Murakami-esque. And yet none of these details are in Murakami’s short story. They are all from Hamaguchi’s mind. Perhaps this is what makes a masterful adaptation–to adapt one’s stories into the voice of the author whose work one’s work is based on.

Part of the reason why I stopped reading Murakami is precisely this preoccupation with female bodies and sexuality as oracles into a man’s deeper understanding or knowledge of himself. I see this time and time again in Murakami’s books and stories, and by the time I was 22, I had had quite enough of it. It felt, to me, elementary and a bit exploitative. I wrote a whole essay on the topic which Thought Catalog published. While this hang-up on a woman’s sexuality as being mysterious is present in Hamaguchi’s film, it did not feel abusive. I guess because the stories that Oto narrates felt so allegorical, and serve such a concrete purpose in the film—a concreteness that Murakami’s stories tend to lack. Hamaguchi also melded Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya into his script in such a nuanced and fine-tuned way, more deeply reflecting the souls of each of his own script’s characters, that I was left impressed by his craftsmanship as a screenwriter. Hamaguchi’s film showcases how humanity reveals itself with great might in scenarios where it is grossly absent like when Oto dies and Kafuku develops a relationship with Takatsuki. Or how Misaki’s driving is perfectly smooth because she chauffeured her physically abusive mother around since she was in middle school. How Takatsuki’s acting gains human understanding and substance only after taking away a man’s life. How the theater company remains softly and coldly resolved to replace Takatsuki and go on with the show mere minutes after Takatsuki’s arrest and confinement, which finally draws out a human response from Kafuku who’d remained deadened to human emotions after the death of his daughter and wife.

The scene when Kafuku embraces Misaki and delivers lines of support that reverberate from Chekov’s play is cinematically and theatrically moving. Seeing Misaki play with the Korean couple’s dog as a way to express joy at Kafuku’s compliment of her driving and later seeing her with a dog of her own in Korea while driving Kafuku’s car brings such subtle yet lasting joy, like a distinct flavor in a soup that I can conjure time and time again years after I’ve had the soup but never being able to name what ingredient it was and never wishing to know.

 In the mainstream, critics and audiences frequently say that movies are never as good as the books but Drive My Car is an instance where the film outshines the story. It’s like comparing a star to a candlelight.

I’ve recently had another experience where the film broke all expectations for me compared to the book it is based on and that is I’m Thinking of Ending Things.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a 2020 movie written and directed by Charlie Kaufman that is on Netflix. It came out in 2020—the same year that the world came to a full stop and I had all the time and mental capacity to rewatch the same movie over and over again trying to gain footing in it. I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a challenging film but not without brilliance. It’s like trying to read a difficult book. It’s comparable to reading Kaufman’s novel Antkind which came out the same year that his film was released. I’ve been reading Antkind for four months now, and I’ve only now past the midway section. It is a difficult book but also hilarious. It’s Kaufman-esque in the way that I’m Thinking of Ending Things is a difficult film. But I love this film for so many reasons, and after I first saw it, I rewatched it again almost immediately and a couple times more thereafter. Each time I watch it, I can see it with new eyes.

The film follows a woman played by the wonderful Jessie Buckley visiting her boyfriend’s parents’ house in a snowy wintery night, and that’s pretty much the whole movie. But it has so much strangeness and heavy beauty throughout. It’s hard to tell whose mental breakdown we are following because everybody appears to be having a mental breakdown. There is also a mysterious elderly male janitor spliced in there who we follow without being able to connect why we follow him. The film has a poetry recitation, a school musical, and a dance number. They all do the work of making the story more than what it is—a movie.

When I first saw Adaptation, I was 17. I didn’t know how the film was going to unfold but I was engrossed in it. My classmates started to yell in agony when they saw that Charlie Kaufman had a twin brother Donald Kaufman, and they said, “This had better not be a movie about a guy imagining his own twin brother.” The film is and is not about that very thing, and being that ambiguous is what makes Adaptation a brilliant film. Kaufman is an expert at using hackneyed concepts in his film yet skirting the hack part of it by making it completely and unpredictably new. That’s the service of the poem, the musical number and the dancing in I’m Thinking of Ending Things the film. I read the novel I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid which the film is based on and the book is far less luminous precisely because the ending reveals this lackluster hackneyed concept so brazenly. Yes. We’ve been reading a single man’s mental breakdown and ultimate suicide all this time. How jejune. But we never come to this conclusion or realization in Kaufman’s film version. No sure nail to the head is necessary. It is never ever necessary if it means the life of a far greater story and its characters. Kaufman’s film does hint at this conclusive possibility all throughout but it could be from anyone’s position—the boyfriend’s, the girlfriend’s, the old man’s, the father’s or the mother’s. Even the pig’s. Even the anxious teenaged employee at the ice cream shop. It doesn’t matter because the film is not about coming to a conclusive resolution. It’s an attempt at maintaining the film’s life, letting that resound and reverberate as questions, possibilities, frustration, sadness, joy, madness, or whatever else and holding it for as long as possible. That resonation continues to ring long after the film ends. It still rings. In that sense, Kaufman’s style is expertly Modern.

I think this is what makes a film so different from a written story. I’m both a writer and a filmmaker, and I sense their vast differences whenever I work on a new project. When I write, I write with such freedom, and the worlding that I produce feels like a privilege. When I make a film, it feels far more difficult to create the worlding because the pieces are so many and it takes an enormous amount of energy to maintain that world in the mind upon creation, but I enjoy it nonetheless because the end result is a true visual manifestation of what I held in my mind and so much more which everyone can see with their eyes and hear with their ears, grounding viewers into a singular collective experience which splinter off into various subjective opinions and emphases. When making a film, though, the writing is what takes place first. The script, yes, but also the artist’s statement, and the synopsis and the logline. The emails. The pitch. The convincing to get the capital. The words come first. The visuals last. Then after the visuals, the words return again, like it does here.

The difference is that the words can be transformed into the most unpredictable outcomes in a film whereas in a story, the words remain as those words, and the worlding that takes place in the reader’s mind is their own private ritual. This is also what makes reading a special activity. In the case with Drive My Car and I’m Thinking of Ending Things, I felt that the worlds that these filmmakers created for me as the reader of these stories far surpasses anything I envisioned in my mind, and for that I feel a big chunk of gratitude this very moment.