Growing up, I dreaded the first day of school every fall because of the public ritual my teachers and I would inevitably carry out. The rigamarole, which took place during roll call, became particularly uncomfortable in fourth grade, the year my family moved from Cambridge out to the suburbs.
It usually began with awkward silence as a teacher arrived at my name. You could see the syllables bouncing around their brain like balls in a lottery drawing.
“Eric. . . Young. . . Jin. . . Kim?” This was the best case scenario. Other outcomes included, “Eric Young,” “Young Jim,” and, when my last name was mistaken for my first, “Kim Young.” The word soup, along with the teacher’s trepidation, was a heady brew for a classroom of kids still buzzing from summer.
“Young Jin. That’s my name. The ‘Eric’ is a mistake. I don’t know where that came from.”
“That’s strange,” the teacher would say. “These don’t usually have mistakes. Your first name is Young. . . Jin? Two words?”
My ears would turn the color of a Starburst cherry chew. In addition to first-day jitters, I was grappling with being one of only a few Asian students at school, magnifying my self-consciousness. The gazes of my classmates felt like interrogation lights.
“My first name is Young Jin. My last name is Kim. It’s a Korean name. I don’t know where Eric came from.”
In later years, a classmate might chime in. “His name’s not Eric. That’s a mistake,” they’d interject, either as an act of solidarity or exasperation. Some grew suspicious, reckoning such an error year after year was unlikely. I held my ground. Eric was not my name.
“Young Jin it is then,” the teacher would say, as if their saying so made it the truth.
My name is Eric Young Jin Kim.
For much of my life, seeing my name like this made me wince. Its components felt like unconnected boxcars on a track, colliding, never moving as one. Each part, on its own, was familiar enough for peers to wrap their heads around. Together, they felt like a secret better confined to my home.
I didn’t appreciate it at the time, but I surely wasn’t the only one who felt uncomfortable with their name. According to a 2022 poll by YouGov, 41 percent of Americans said they neither liked nor disliked their name, disliked it somewhat, or disliked it a lot. That’s a lot of ambivalence. Looking back, I’m sure some classmates endured worse than me, like the affable kid whose Polish last name put a target for bullying on his back.
My own name might be less problematic today than in the 1980s and ‘90s, when I was in school: Anyone familiar with baseball, K-pop groups, or sweeping melodramas has seen at least a few Korean names. Back then, however, kimchi was not yet a topping for burgers and tacos, and names like mine hadn’t entered the American lexicon.
Throughout my youth, I knew little about my parents’ homeland. Aside from a summer spent there when I was 7, my primary connections were through my mother’s cooking and stories I heard about my paternal grandfather. A self-made businessman who guided his family through Japan’s brutal colonization and, soon after, the Korean War, he’d eventually spirit his seven children out of the country to give them the best education he could. I was reminded often that he gave me my Korean name.
As many around the world now know, Korean names typically consist of three syllables, the family name coming first. As of 2015, there were nearly 11 million Kims in Korea — almost 1 of every 5 Korean nationals — divided into clans based on geographical region. I am from the Cheongpung Kim clan, descended from an aristocratic family that dates back centuries, and whose members have included queens and prime ministers.
According to a tradition followed by many Koreans, a person’s given name includes a generational syllable — for me, Jin — based on genealogy and shared among paternal cousins. A child’s grandfather often helps choose the remaining syllable; mine chose Young to complete my name. Each component corresponds with a Chinese character with its own meaning.
My father, who immigrated to the United States as a teenager, knew the challenges that a less common name could bring. Thrown into the New York City school system with no English skills, his name — Young Chol Kim — appeared in school records in various arbitrary configurations. During his junior high graduation ceremony, it was jumbled so badly that no one knew who had been called. The syllables hung in the air as people waited for someone to walk up to the stage.
Those experiences stuck with him, and so, when I was born, he decided to give me an English name as well, to protect me from the problems he’d had. He had read about a Viking adventurer named Erik, and hoped his son would be a bold explorer, too, in whatever he chose to pursue. At home, my parents continued to call my two sisters and me by our Korean names — a common practice among our Korean American friends.
Beginning in kindergarten, however, I was adamant: I wanted to be called Young Jin. To my father, it was a sign of my independent streak. For me, it was about my grandfather. His role in naming me loomed large in my mind, and, unprompted, I chose to honor him. Not only that, I liked the name. It felt like home, like the stews my mother made from fermented soybean paste: umami-packed and comforting, if perhaps a bit too pungent for the average New England palate at the time.
Spoken tentatively by teachers and mangled by peers, Young Jin lost the music it had when spoken by my parents and relatives. When we moved to the suburbs, I began lying when asked about the name Eric.
If, during those awkward roll calls, I felt judged, it’s because I was being judged. Studies over the years have shown how people take cues from names, shaping their impression — rightly or wrongly — about a person’s characteristics, including race, personality, and level of success. Names are associated with real-world outcomes such as income, education, and juvenile delinquency.
A 2011 study asked whether a name’s pronounceability affected the impression it made on others. Participants were presented with a variety of names in contexts such as mock elections and newspaper articles, and asked to rate them. Not surprisingly, researchers found the respondents gravitated to the names they found easier to pronounce, judging those imagined people as more likable and upwardly mobile.
The study was rooted in a concept known as processing fluency: the ease with which a piece of information can be comprehended. So what becomes of a name that renders others into a state of buffering? And if we’re predisposed to react negatively to difficult names, can a person avoid coming to hate their own?
By choosing my Korean name over my American one, I was embarking on a journey to find out.
In fifth grade, our teacher organized our desks into pods of four. In contrast to the traditional all-eyes-up-front arrangement, this was an opportunity to interact with a smaller group. I quietly hoped I would make new friends.
The other boy in the pod, on paper, was the prototypical classmate I should aspire to befriend: athletic, well-liked, at ease recapping the weekend’s NFL games. The two girls intimidated me.
One day, I turned to say something to the girl seated next to me. This is when, allegedly, a fleck of spit flew from my mouth and landed on her sweater.
When I sat down the next morning, I discovered my deskmates had invented a nickname for me. Pounding their fists, they chanted a chorus I would hear for months: Yong Jong Donkey Phlegm, are you OK? Are you OK?
Instead of protesting, I reflexively insisted the saliva had never left my mouth in the first place. But it was three against one, their voices overpowering. I looked into the hollow cavity of my desk, at the spiral pencil shavings and blunted stubs of lead, and waited for the storm to clear.
An incomplete list of names I’ve been called:
Young, Eric, Young Gin and Juice, Old Jin, Youth, Kim, Lil Kim, Young Jim, Young Kin, Fung, Egg Foo Yong, Hideo Nomo, That Kid, That Chinese Kid, Whatever His Name Is, Yong Jong Donkey Phlegm, Mr. Miyagi, Jackie Chan, Chino.
In middle school, I started going by the nickname Young. Kids had discovered it was a workaround to my complicated full name; for me, it made roll call easier. There must be a correlation, I thought, between the Americanness of a name and how few times you had to repeat it. The word itself, in English, implied inexperience and naiveté. But it was also the nickname my father went by, and that was good enough for me.
Name-calling persisted, often playing on the words “old” and “gin.” Sometimes it came drenched in the casual ah-so anti-Asian racism that was ubiquitous back then. Once, during a basketball tournament, the opposing team called me Hideo Nomo for an entire game, a reference to the Japanese pitcher who then played for the Los Angeles Dodgers. By the time I’d absorbed the insults, the chance to respond was already over.
One afternoon during youth soccer practice, our coach called a huddle. As we stood at midfield among cones and pinnies, a kid took a swipe at my name. Once in a while, inspiration and opportunity align so perfectly that even a shell-shocked kid like me could take advantage. I calmly reminded him that his own surname prominently featured slang for male genitalia — a fact particularly hilarious within our age demographic — and that he was in no place to make fun of anyone’s name.
I stood there with a satisfied smile as the team erupted in laughter, derailing the practice. But the thrill of one-upmanship vanished when I caught a glimpse of the kid’s face. I saw that I had hurt him.
Our names are important to us all. They tell us where we come from.
In my case, mine was also telling me where I was headed. I just couldn’t hear it yet.
What we now call microaggressions were so common that I barely registered anything was wrong, let alone that something could be done about it. I only recently mentioned any of this to my parents. When I did, they were surprised. My father blamed himself for not recognizing my struggles, and was pained that his efforts to shield me from the challenges he’d experienced had resulted in confusion.
I tried to explain that, instead of some kind of failure, being able to choose my preferred name would, in time, turn out to be the greatest of gifts.
When I arrived at the University of Massachusetts Amherst as a freshman, I suddenly found myself in a more diverse environment. My dorm cluster attracted international students, including many from Asia. In a dorm basement, I participated in marathon table tennis sessions with friends with names such as Van and Rishi, who didn’t blink when I told them my name. And when I majored in English and began writing poetry and fiction, my name became associated with something entirely positive: my creativity.
As a young writer, I tried to emulate the literary style of another Massachusetts native, Jack Kerouac, whose fiction mirrored his life. Like me, my protagonist was Korean American and struggled with identity.
In On the Road, the Kerouac character is named Sal Paradise. I called my alter ego Juno, a Korean name I’d heard. I liked how the syllables flowed into one another, how it could be written as one word. I imagined Juno would have an easier time with his name, and I wanted that for him.
In the summer of 2006, I boarded a plane for South Korea.
The plan came together as soon as I realized how badly I needed to go. I had been living in San Francisco since graduating, pursuing writing while working with elementary school students in Chinatown. But I hadn’t written anything worth publishing, and had run out of ideas.
I knew part of my identity was missing, like a jigsaw puzzle with a hole in the center, and that I could go no further without filling the empty space. Before I could second-guess myself, I applied for a job as an English instructor in a city called Daejeon, about 90 miles from Seoul, and packed my bags.
I worked at one of the after-school learning academies known as hagwon, ubiquitous in the education-obsessed country. In the afternoons, bright-eyed elementary school students called out “Hi, Young Jin Teacher!” in mandatory English as they filed into the classroom. They called instructors at this hagwon — mostly young Americans and Canadians — by their first names, but added teacher, one of the many titles of respect that uphold the country’s strict social hierarchy. My evening classes catered to high schoolers studying for standardized tests in the United States. I bonded with a bright, quiet kid named Young Jin.
One afternoon, a teacher fresh off the plane from the United States walked into the teachers’ room laughing. “I have a kid in my class named Young Bum,” she said. “They know that’s ridiculous, right?”
I felt like a fifth-grader again, caught between my fight reflex and the urge to disappear. Before I could say anything, a Canadian teacher stepped in. “You get used to it,” she said. “It’s not like his parents are thinking of us when they name their kids. It’s another culture, you know.”
In Korea, I felt an ease I’d never experienced with my own name. Instead of confusion, people appreciated meeting a Korean American with a Korean name. Many were surprised I’d opted not to use Eric. I noticed how the syllables of my name flowed seamlessly when spoken by my Korean co-workers, mostly women in their 20s and 30s, and relished how they elongated the pronunciation of Jin, making it sound more like “Jean.” When they said my name, it sounded normal — attractive even. It sounded like music.
I’d planned to live in Korea for a year, but after lucking into a copy editing job at an English language newspaper in Seoul, I ended up staying for nine. One day, the managing editor, a Korean man with leathery skin, called me into his office. “Young Jin-shi,” he said, adding a formal postfix. (I called him gookjang-nim, a term of respect for our chief editor.) He asked if I would try reporting on politics. When my first front-page story was published, I swelled with pride to see my byline written as Kim Young-jin, with the paper’s hyphenated style.
The role gave me access to halls of power I could never have imagined. I worked out of press rooms in the parliament, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ministry of Unification, which manages the tense relations with North Korea. I wore press credentials with my name in Hangul, the written Korean language. Officials from the government addressed me as Kim Young Jin gija-nim, using the title for journalists.
Over five years, I climbed the newsroom ladder to become a senior editor, earning the title of boojang-nim. Not everyone called me this, however. I was American, and many of my Korean colleagues spoke with me informally, as they would other foreigners, their English skills being stronger than my Korean. Much like how, growing up, my name and race limited my feeling of Americanness, I felt the limits of my Koreanness, as well. This didn’t bother me. By this time, I understood how privileged I was to straddle both cultures.
I once confided to two young reporters on my team that my English name was Eric. Both were Koreans who had spent much of their youth abroad; our status as partial outsiders bonded us. In a group chat, they teased me about that part of my name, using absurd cartoon emoji characters. It felt good to laugh with them.
Outside of work, women I dated, if younger than me, sometimes called me oppa, an affectionate term for one’s older brother as well as male friends and lovers. My male friends younger than me called me hyung, or big brother. At the Bohemian bar I frequented, I asked for my IPAs to be poured with less foam, despite the bartenders preaching the virtues of a frothy head. They drew my beers in what became known as “Young-Jin style.”
In 2015, I finally returned to the United States. The empty space I’d felt inside was now overflowing. I knew, better than I could have imagined, where I came from.
When I moved back to Boston and began working in local media, I knew I’d never introduce myself as Young again. I kept Young-Jin as my byline, and realized I no longer differentiated between a Korean and American name. It was simply my name. It felt like a final puzzle piece, snapped into place.
There is a photograph of my son, taken last year, sleeping in the hospital a day after his birth. Next to his swaddled body, his name is written in cheerful block letters on a strip of masking tape adhered to the bassinet. A night nurse had drawn festive balloons around the edges. “It’s perfect,” she said of the name.
The name was on my tongue the morning after my wife Jeannie and I learned we were having a boy. I pitched it to Jeannie, a Korean American from New Jersey who shares a deep love for Korea. Like me, she wanted our son to have a Korean name, and the idea quickly grew on her.
The trickier part, I thought, will be getting my father on board. I knew he would embrace the chance to name his grandson, as his father had for me.
On a warm evening, we sat with my parents in their backyard. I began a preamble about my own name, and how it connected me to Korea. How I had struggled with it. I told my father I wanted to break tradition, with his blessing, and give our child a Korean name that would translate to our American life.
My father smiled and said he would support our decision. More than anything, he was elated that we planned to give our child a Korean name.
Jeannie and I liked the way Juno rolled off our tongues, how it flowed as one word instead of two. It would remind him of his Korean roots. We didn’t mind that it is also a name given to girls, originating from a Roman goddess — we hoped he’d be a champion of women, like her.
I wondered, however: Were we picking Juno because it sounded more American — and less foreign — than a name like my own? What did that say about me?
Truthfully, one of the ways I process Korean names is according to how adaptable they are to the American ear. I reflexively assess their sound and how they look written in English, and categorize them as yeah, that would work in the US, or no, not so much. I don’t like that I do this. But I process them in other ways too. I see them, in my mind, written in Hangul, their letters stacked like Tetris blocks. They remind me of my friends and colleagues in Seoul and the young people I taught in Daejeon.
I know, also, that attitudes about names are always evolving. For starters, a boy band with members named Jungkook and Jimin is a household name in America. And in the wake of an ugly spate of violence against Asians in the United States, we’ve seen Asian Americans step forward to embrace their full names. This is the world my son will navigate.
My concerns relaxed as I watched Koreans and Americans alike coo our son’s name. Americans put more emphasis on the first syllable; Koreans made the second sound rounder, as if blowing a smoke ring from a cigarette. The universally positive reaction warmed my heart. I saw that Juno would have a different experience with his name than I did with mine, and my father with his. The name worked.
The only question anyone asked was about its meaning. That was determined by my father, who had researched, with the help of one of his older sisters, a translator of Korean literature into English, the Chinese characters available for each syllable. For Joon, he selected the character meaning talented. For Oh, he chose one that means enlightenment.
Decades ago, my grandfather had also chosen my name to imbue it with special meaning. When I began taking an interest in Korean culture, years after he passed away, I asked about its significance. I learned that Young means bright, and Jin means truth.
It’s a powerful thing, a name. In my mind’s eye, I’ve always seen a lighthouse at the edge of the wild sea, illuminating a path through the night fog.
It took me years, but eventually I realized the prescience of that image — and my name — and how it had always pointed to where I needed to be.
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Young-Jin Kim can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @youngjinwrites.