The trauma of immigration, and the story behind a name
Names, luck, and destiny, and how I ended up being one of a million Jennifers.
In Korea, the practice of naming your baby was often determined by seeking the consultation of a fortune teller. By taking a thorough look at the baby’s birth date, the Chinese zodiac, and some mystical calculation of how well the elements of earth, metal, water, fire and wood combine in harmony with the birth date, the final name is selected. My mother once told me that I was born with a different name, but when visiting a fortune teller, was quickly advised that the name she had chosen was not auspicious and could lead to bad luck. I was given a new name for better luck and destiny. I don’t know if this practice is still common with newborns anymore, but Koreans believe that a good name can determine a baby’s fate.
My Korean name, my American name
I came to America with the name, Hyun Jung. That’s the name written on my green card which I still have somewhere, laminated and tucked away with my other important documents. But it’s not a name that is easy to pronounce for American tongues and when that quickly became obvious, my mom changed my name to Jennifer before I was enrolled in nursery school.
As the story goes, my mother and I were walking down the street in our neighborhood in Queens when she overheard another mom call her daughter “Jennifer!!” She then turned to me and decided that I would be a Jennifer from then on.
It’s almost amusing how unceremonious and arbitrary my American name came to me, given how carefully my chosen Korean name was considered. What ever happened to names, luck, and destiny? But I imagine my mom was heavily weighing the convenience of having an American name when I was ready to start school. And like so many other factors having to do with immigrant assimilation, we change and compromise many things about ourselves—our identity, our appearance, our behavior—in order to conform. But this is also for the benefit of making interactions with others less challenging and awkward, even if it is at the expense of hiding who we truly are.
Millions of Jennifers
It should come as no surprise that as a child of the 70s, my mom gave me the most common name from that decade. The story of how she named me Jennifer right there on that sidewalk might be partially fabricated (who really remembers), but she undoubtedly heard and saw the name everywhere. I’ve read that Jennifer became wildly popular because of Ali MacGraw’s character in Love Story. It’s curious that a film about a heroine’s tragic demise launched a million Jennifers for the next dozen years (talk about names and fate!). In my mother’s attempt to assimilate me as quickly into American culture as possible, it’s wildly fitting that I was given a name that would personify an entire generation. I personally know about a dozen Jennifers, all 70s babies. If her intention was to have her Korean child blend right into American schools, at least on paper, then mission accomplished, but my American name didn’t always make it to the classroom roster list on teachers’ desks because my name was not official and wasn’t printed on any government documents.
Because of this, I always dreaded the first day of school. My body would brace itself for the inevitable butchering of my name. I always knew I was next when there was hesitation after a string of Lisas, Johns, and Michelles rolled fluidly off my teachers’ tongues during attendance. My shoulders would tense as I heard them struggle to pronounce the first few letters, my face growing hot with embarrassment every time I raised my hand to claim the foreign name. I waited for the snickers and taunting echoes of my mispronounced name that I knew would always come.
“Your name is Ching Chong!”
Sometimes you can never unhear things.
Separated and reunited
There isn’t enough said about the trauma of being an immigrant, even if it is by choice and even if you live through that experience at an early age like I did. The complete loss of familiarity and your entire identity is a loneliness that is hard to quantify when you’re thrown into a new culture to sink or swim.
One of my dad’s favorite stories to tell was when he and I got on a plane to fly from Seoul to New York when I was three. He said I cried the entire 14 hour flight and the airline stewardesses had to carry me into the first class cabin which was largely empty, in attempts to quell my cries because I was that toddler on the plane disrupting the flight for the other passengers. This story was one of the only stories that he would repeat in his late stage Alzheimer’s that was rooted in truth and not from a disillusioned reality that his mind created. I always thought it was significant that he held on to that memory of the two of us till the very end.
Those who know me may know that my mother and I were separated for two years early in my childhood. The story goes much deeper than I’m able to tell today, but my mom immigrated to America when I was a year old, recruited as a nurse when the U.S. lifted its immigration quota from Asia with the passing of The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act. But she did not take me or my father along with her. We stayed behind until we joined her two years later.
I used to have this one particular recurring nightmare when I was a kid that I still remember clearly even now. The dream goes like this:
I am laying on my bed in the dark except for a sliver of light coming through a crack in the door. The door is positioned on the left wall at the foot of my bed. The light grows bigger as a figure slowly opens the door and walks in. The figure stands over me wearing a paper bag over its head with three gaping black holes cut out for eyes and a mouth. The figure takes off the bag. That figure is my mother.
My earliest childhood memory is one where I’m pushing my mom away and crying to go back, frantically pointing up to the sky the day I was reunited with her in New York when I was three. Memories from childhood can often be tricky because it’s sometimes hard to tell if something is actually a memory or if it’s been ingrained into our conscious because it’s a story we’ve been told many times. But I know this memory is real and I know that it’s mine. I can feel it in my bones. I can still conjure up the feeling of what it felt like to pound my mother on her chest with my small toddler fists, my face hot with rage and fear, and hers twisted in anguish, head pulled back trying to avoid my flinging hands.
I was told that I cried a lot in those early years. Cried every day while hiding under a coffee table because I didn’t want to be dragged off to a babysitter’s house while my parents worked. I was ripped from the arms of a mother figure not once, but twice, when I was taken away on an airplane and away from my grandmother who raised me, only to be left to strange babysitters most of the day. The implication of separation during those early mother/child bonding years wasn’t something that I confronted until much later in life. There is a story of abandonment and separation that I am now only trying to thread, to understand my own triggers and fears.
Now that I’m a parent, I think about how excruciatingly hard that must have been for my mother too. To leave your baby for a better life, to climb out of poverty and war in search of the American dream, only to be rejected by your child years later. I’m sure it’s a common immigration story; I don’t think my story is that special. I don’t really know how long it took me to accept her as my mom—we don’t really talk about it all that much—but I eventually did and the separation became a distant memory. I also wonder if giving me an American name was a way for my mom to have a fresh start with her child because my Korean name was barely ever used by my parents or other relatives who came to America after us. My family mostly called me by the romanized pronunciation of Jennifer in Korean, which is Je-ni-puh. Later I just became Jenny, blending in with a million other Jenny Parks in America.
Making the name official
Back when I became a naturalized U.S. citizen sometime in middle school, I had the opportunity to change my name, legally, on all my official documents. I remember racking my brain for weeks leading up to the day I was sworn in, entertaining all kinds of names and personas that I wanted to adopt. I had an incredible opportunity to change my name, and one of my own choosing, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to waste it! My thirteen year old self stayed up late the night before the ceremony, staring at my blacklight velvet unicorn posters. I was a fully assimilated American teen at that point with no trace of the Korean immigrant child who cried for the first couple of years of her life. After much internal debate, I settled on the name Crystal.
Crystal Park. Surely there weren’t any other Crystal Parks in New York City!
But by next morning I was too chicken to commit to it (thank god) and Jennifer was printed on all my naturalization papers with an embossed American seal. I was too relieved to not have to face another dreaded first day of school to really care that I squandered an opportunity. Throughout the next ten years I would try out every variation of Jennifer that I could think of, presumably in an effort to distinguish myself from all the other Jennifer Parks out there in America. Jennie, Jenn, Jen, Jenne, Jenny. When I left NYC for the West Coast in the early 90s, I settled on Jenna. That version of my name has stuck around the longest.
But an interesting thing happened to my Korean name, legally at least. Almost all Korean given names are constructed from two syllables with one syllable often commonly shared among siblings. When I became naturalized, my mom decided that I should drop one syllable and keep the other for a middle name. Middle names don’t exist in Korea, and I later wondered why my given Korean name, so carefully consulted and chosen, was butchered in half to conform itself into the American tradition of a first and middle name. Somehow, it perfectly encapsulated how I felt about my identity back then. Korean, but also not really.
Reclaiming our names
Exactly two years ago, after the murders of the Asian women in the Atlanta spa shootings, a trend on social media emerged where many Asian Americans started appending our given Asian names in native characters after our handles. I saw a wave of Twitter and Instagram posts with names in native Asian languages flood my feed. I still have my Korean name appended after my American name like this: Jenna Park 박현정. The family name first, followed by the two-syllable given name.
At the time, it felt like a significant defining moment of long overdue pride, a collective announcement party of sorts for many of us as we reclaimed the names that were tucked away hidden, unused, and unknown by even the people who knew us the longest. But after those shootings during the height of our collective fear, we made noise on social media announcing our names as a sort of fuck you to anyone who made fun of it in the past and shamed us into thinking our names were too foreign, too hard to pronounce, too weird, and not American enough.
It highlights that a lot of our experiences as immigrants and as people of color in America is a shared one of suppressing and sometimes stripping away our core identities in favor of making it easier for the rest of the country to address and relate to us. Sometimes it takes a lifetime to claim all of that back.
Incidentally, what I find so funny is that with the rise of Korea becoming a cultural juggernaut around the world, the word hyung, which is used to address an older male by other males (like “older brother) is one of the more common Korean words that non-Koreans who are interested in the culture become familiar with. The word is also very similar to the first syllable of my name, Hyun. I see and hear non-Koreans use hyung all the time in memes, social media posts, and comments, especially when referencing the relationship between members within K-pop bands.
As it turns out, maybe my name wasn’t too hard to pronounce after all. It’s just that back then, nobody really tried or cared.
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This was really beautiful, Jenna. It brought tears to my eyes and also plenty of chagrin for the teachers of the 70s and 80s who didn’t try harder to pronounce your name or even to contain the cruelty of the other children.
I've heard you talk about Crystal before, but the longer story adds so much resonance. This past weekend, my mom shared a printed version of my grandmother's life story, including how my Omi, as a single mom, left her two kids behind while going to set up life in a new country after war. The hard choices immigrants have to make are beyond anything most Americans have had to do, and also so part of the generational trauma we carry. Separation fights were part of my mother and grandmother's life-long relationship, but only now does mom talk about it. Maybe it's part of why I feel so much guilt when I leave home. Thank you for this story, 박현정.