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. These initials represent my given name at birth when I first emerged as a human being on this earth in Busan, Korea. My father named me “Hyun-ju.” “Hyun” is 賢 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 珠 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 themselves what to call me–whatever worked for them regardless of how I felt about it.

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 which is known around the area 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 on the first day of the school year or whenever substitute teachers would 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.

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, respect or effort.

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 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 and I wanted it to stay that way. This was my way of protecting myself.

I kept it ever since but over the years, I’ve been seeing “aechjay” increasingly on other 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 shy 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 a former immigrant. 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 shared trauma around their names because of racism and microaggressions they endured since 1992 as I did. 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, intention, 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 at 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 is my first name.” He said, “Oh! Hey, don’t be embarrassed of your Asian 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 from 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. In fact, “grace” is already a part of my given name. Hyun, which means benevolence, rings grace.

“Grace Jung” is 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 and mistrust which are symptoms of endured racism in this country.

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, spiritually 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.

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