After Years of Hating My Name, How I Finally Came to Embrace It
Years ago, my best friend wanted to give me a necklace with my first initial as a birthday gift, and she asked beforehand what letter I wanted.
I frowned as I thought about this. This really shouldn’t have been a difficult question, and yet I felt paralyzed with anxiety. Should I get “B” for Bora, my Korean name that hardly anyone uses? “E” for Elizabeth, my American nickname? Or “L” for Liz, which is what most people call me?
Growing up, I was always secretly envious of people with names that were so definitive. “Sarah Jane Walker.” “Daniel Park.” Names that appeared identically on every official document and which could be confidently monogrammed on L.L. Bean book bags in high school. Subconsciously, I think that’s one reason why I became a lawyer. There are never puzzled looks when asked what my job is. When I fill out forms at the doctor’s office, it’s so concrete and certain. “Occupation: Attorney.” Boom. One word. Easy.
To further complicate matters, my Korean name is actually Bo Ra, not Bora. In Korean, each syllable is its own character, and when filling out our immigration forms, my dad did not realize that separating Bora into separate words would shorten my first name to Bo and confuse teachers, receptionists, doctors and airport security for years to come.
“Bo???” grade school teachers would ask on the first day of school, always followed by an awkward silence. Despite being a fairly straightforward name, my very non-diverse school was filled with Jennifers, Lindseys and Megans, and “Bo” seemed to throw teachers for a major loop. I soon learned to anticipate the dramatic pause at roll call, and I would sit on edge as the teacher made her way through the “H” last names ready with my standard explanation, “My name is actually Bo Ra, but I go by Liz”.
You might be wondering why some Asians have American nicknames that sound nothing like their given name. Asian immigrants who want their children to assimilate into American culture as quickly as possible assume that an American name will facilitate that. Most of the time, it is not a legal name change, and so we simply choose a name we like. And, oh the possibilities.
At the time that I was choosing my nickname, the Sweet Valley High books were all the rage. I wish I could say that I had chosen the nickname, Elizabeth, after the smart, pretty Wakefield twin. Truthfully, I named myself after Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the American suffragist, after our unit on the women’s rights movement. I was not popular in elementary school in case you were wondering. Clearly, I did not consider the endless possible nicknames that could be derived from Elizabeth that would paralyze me years later when my sweet friend simply wanted to get me a piece of jewelry.
I was still wrapped up in my necklace dilemma when I came across a news article about young Indian girls, all named Nakusha or “unwanted”, who were taking part in a mass renaming ceremony. As is the case in many parts of the world, there is still a strong preference for sons in rural parts of India (I’d say that naming your daughter “unwanted” gets that point across pretty clearly). The local government wanted to combat these negative attitudes by giving these girls a fresh start and an opportunity to rename themselves. The 285 girls who took part in this ceremony chose their new names with intention. One 15-year-old girl chose a name meaning “very tough”. Another chose a name that means “ray of light”.
My own Korean name derives from Chinese characters meaning “sparkling treasure”. It is a beautiful name, one that was lovingly picked out by my parents. But for so many years, I was embarrassed by it. I hated how no one could pronounce it properly, how it highlighted my Asian-ness and made me feel like an outsider. Reading about these girls made me deeply ashamed about my rejection of my own given name. Your name does not define you, but it is a part of who you are and being branded as “unwanted” can certainly have a profound impact on your self-esteem. I was struck by these girls’ strength and quiet determination and wished that I had possessed the same courage and confidence to embrace my name growing up. My name may not be a common one in America, but my teachers weren’t the ones who made me feel bad — I had projected their misunderstanding and unfamiliarity with Korean culture as cause for embarrassment onto myself.
These days, I still go by Liz. I’ve been Liz for over 30 years, and it feels just as much a part of me as Bo Ra. But I now embrace my Korean name as well, and I no longer cringe when people mispronounce it. In fact, most people are curious to hear its origins and are delighted when they learn its meaning.
Maybe you love your name, maybe you hate your name, maybe you’re named after someone special, maybe you named yourself. No matter how your name came to be, it took me decades and a renaming ceremony halfway around the world to realize that no one can make you feel unwanted without your permission.