On Being Chinese, in Korea

Two weeks ago, I went to E-mart to pick up a pizza in an effort to console Husband, who was lying miserably in bed with a nasty cough as well as a freshly sprained ankle—the result of a brave, but failed attempt to land a front flip at his school’s talent show (Husband is a teacher there, not a student). There were so many people in line for the bargain-priced pizzas that we were all requested to submit our names in exchange for a pick-up time. While waiting my turn, I wondered, what name should I give? Since learning to speak basic Korean, I have sworn off speaking any English if at all possible, namely to lessen the possibility of strange looks and miscommunication. Giving my name in English would certainly cause strange looks and possible miscommunication. The pizza clerk, pen and paper in hand, asked me for my name. Lacking the time to deliberate, I quickly blurted out “Cho Mi-Na.” The clerk must have read the confusion on my face because she asked me to repeat myself. Yes, I was definitely confused. Because that’s not my name.

My Korean mother-in-law told me that I should give myself a Korean name if I wanted to be added to the official family registry.

For the sake of this story, I’ll call myself “Chinese” rather than “Taiwanese” since my family speaks two dialects of Chinese and my grandmother was born in China. While we’re on that note, you might like to know that my Chinese name is Chiou Mu-En (pronounced “choe”), with Chiou being the family name. As a reflection of my Chinese heritage, my American birth certificate states Mu-En as my legal middle name. 23 years later, my Korean mother-in-law would tell me that I should give myself a Korean name if I wanted to be added to the official family registry. Cho Mi-Na, she suggested, since it sounded similar to my Chinese name. But, Husband and I never got around to updating the family registry, so I’ve never used that name…until 3 years later while, of all things, buying pizza at E-mart.

It’s an interesting turn of events, a signal of subtle, yet willing changes that are happening to my identity after several years of residency in Seoul. In the beginning, I resented having to state my name at government offices and hospitals as “Youn Ruth.” Depending on the individual’s particular interpretation of the “th” sound, the name “Ruth” ends up sounding a lot like “loot” or “loose.”

Not that I minded taking my husband’s name upon marrying, but in the process of moving to Korea, I felt I had lost something. I became a Chinese girl hidden behind a Korean surname. My facial features, although clearly Asian, don’t communicate what kind of Asian I am. As such, I have taken an obsessive interest in seeing my middle initial in print on résumés, e-mail addresses and login IDs. If it were professional, I’d sign my name something like this: ruthMyoun, in some quirky attempt to prove I was cool and different. Oh, you noticed that M? That’s because my middle name starts with an M. No, it doesn’t mean Michelle or Marie. My middle name is Chinese, foryourinformation, I’d say.

Laughable, I know. As it were, I still really cherish that little letter of the alphabet, but I think I’m willing to be a little less militant in announcing its significance. I think there’s a little more room in my soul to offer a bit of flexibility, in terms of the way I define myself. After all, who I am should be a growing, eclectic collection of my life’s experiences and relationships, shouldn’t it? For what it’s worth, perhaps I’ll look into finally getting on that Korean family registry. The name’s still up for debate, though.


Ruth M. Youn

About Ruth Youn

Ruth M. Youn is easily bored, which has led to the study of five foreign languages, an internship in Lebanon and a short stint in Irish fiddling. Supported by a fantastic husband, her life's desire is to encourage others to pursue Truth and the spiritual freedom therein.

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