Exploring the significance behind my English and Korean names as an adult

By ELIZABETH IM | February 21, 2019

a9-elizabeth

COURTESY OF ELZABETH IM

The author celebrating her fourth birthday while living in South Korea. 

Call me Elizabeth.

Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little to no knowledge of America, and nothing particular to interest me at home, I thought I would hop on the plane for a while and see the land of freedom, democracy and high school proms I’d fantasized about. 

Frankly, Canada was where I really wanted to go in eighth grade. After spending my early childhood there, I always thought I would go back. It is highly possible that my time spent in Canada has turned into a rosy, nostalgic picture due to the romanticizing nature of memory. 

Nonetheless, Canada was where I formulated my earliest understandings of the world; it was where I first learned to ski, where I finally learned how to do multiplication tables and the first place I encountered a wild moose (in my friend’s backyard, to be specific). 

Most importantly, it was the place I learned to love English literature. Although the Korean language is equally as mesmerizing and beautiful, English has a different rhythm, a softer and a more relaxed milieu that I connected stronger with. During the time my family returned to Korea, I had always hoped to go back to Canada, but after a long discussion with my parents, I decided to head to the United States instead.

One summer day in 2014, I landed in Dulles International Airport, located just outside of Washington, D.C., with a bizarrely strong sense of confidence that everything would work out. Two hours later I arrived at my new home, Mercersburg Academy, a boarding school with a total enrollment of approximately 440 students. The two large bags I brought with me eventually grew to become seven boxes by the time I graduated.

Once I got my keys to my dorm room, I looked for the door with my name. Soon I found a door that read:

300 N

Elizabeth Im

(9th Grade)

Yes, that was my name. That was the name on my transcripts, what my teachers called me, what my friends called me and the name that was written on my high school diploma. Elizabeth. Elizabeth. Elizabeth. 

I had no doubt that my name was Elizabeth. But the more time I spent in the U.S., the more I found myself forgetting or neglecting my other self, Jiwon. 

If we met today, we would introduce ourselves something like this:

“Hi, I’m (insert your name here). What’s your name?” you would ask.

“Nice to meet you, I’m Elizabeth,” I would reply, smiling.

Despite my seemingly confident answer, that my name is Elizabeth, I have found myself becoming increasingly bothered every time I reflect on this fundamental question. What is my name? 

Both of them are my name. Yet recently I realized that I felt uneasy answering to either of them for different reasons. My given name — the name on all legal documents — is Jiwon. However, I don’t think of Elizabeth as a pseudonym or an English replacement for my Korean name. 

The first time I identified myself as Elizabeth was in second grade, the day before I started school in Canada. I had just read Queen Elizabeth I’s biography the night before, and I was thoroughly impressed with her grit and persistence as a leader of a nation when all of the odds seemed to have been against her. So, when the registrar at the elementary school asked me what my name was, I replied: Elizabeth. 

No one told me I had to choose a new name, but it felt natural to do so. And I enjoyed having two names. I was born as Jiwon, but Elizabeth was a new, clean slate, a kind of alter ego if you will. It allowed me to consciously decide who I was. It was a name I chose, not one given to me, and a name that indeed merged with my identity over the last ten years. 

It wasn’t until this year that it occurred to me that maybe I should use the English version of my Korean name instead. To send me an e-mail through Outlook, you would have to type in “Jiwon Im,” not “Elizabeth Im.” Every time I write an e-mail to someone, I am not Elizabeth; I am Jiwon on the directory. 

As an adult, I now have to deal with legal documents, and these remind me constantly that I was legally named Jiwon. The designation of Jiwon as a legal name has led me to question, is Elizabeth a fake name? Child’s play? Is it something I should grow out of?

Once I suddenly became aware of the existence of my other name as part of my life in the U.S., saying I am Elizabeth no longer felt right. On the other hand, it also doesn’t feel right to say, “Nice to meet you, my name is Jiwon.” 

After pondering this for a while, I asked my friends to try calling me Jiwon last week. However, it just didn’t sound right for my Korean name to be said with their foreign accents. 

More importantly, I lived as Elizabeth for the past four years; I had accomplishments and made memories under that name. The thought of suddenly throwing away the name that defined an important part of me was, well, jarring.

So what should you call me?

Truthfully, I am still trying to decide. Both names define me and to choose one is difficult (for those of you who don’t know me, being a decisively indecisive person doesn’t help either). For now, I have been writing down, Elizabeth Jiwon Im, when signing up for clubs or activities. Perhaps one day, Jiwon, with the accentuated American gee and woahn, will sound natural, and it will just take time for me to get used to the sound of it.

But for now, call me Elizabeth.

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