How do you pronounce your last name?

I get that all the time. From well-meaning people of course, who want to be sensitive at best and politically correct at worst (which isn’t “worse” at all; it’s still a fine enough reason.) When I picked up Mister from school early because of a fever the other day, for example, the security guard asked as I filled out the release form.

You’d think I’d know how to answer that, right? I don’t. I still hesitate for a split second, and in that brief moment in which I’m trying to figure out what to say, I see a slight look of panic in the asker’s eyes, something like *@#$, I knew I shouldn’t have asked.

In reality, though, all I’m trying to figure out is which answer to give: the easier, Americanized answer (Kohng as in King “Kong”) or the “real” answer (Kohng with a long “o”, and with a beginning consonance closer to “g” than “k”). Why the struggle? Inevitably, the “real” way takes a few tries to get right, and Hubbie and I have just learned that it’s easier on everyone to say it the other way. Like when we’re on the phone with AT&T; who wants to be on the phone with an AT&T rep any longer than they have to?

And I’m sure if you gave me a plush couch to sit on and some nice herbal tea, I’d give the whole thing more thought and ruminate on the possibility that it’s because the “real” pronunciation instantly otherizes. All of a sudden, I’m giving a Korean answer to a question asked in English. All of a sudden, I’m Korean; you’re not. You’re (usually) American, and I’m not the same as you because you don’t even know how to pronounce my name. Sure, it’s a minor, minor detail and a completely innocent question in the first place. One I ask others sometimes. But it dredges up musings about identity that I’ve been keenly aware of my entire hyphenated (Asian-American, Korean-American) life.

When I was younger, I was mad at my parents that they hadn’t given me a Korean name. My sister had one. All my friends at church had one. I just had a Koreanized version of my American name, which was  a joke since proper Korean names are three syllables (1-syllable last name + 2-syllable first name), and my name was four. Jung/Seh/lee/nah. I felt cheated. Somehow more was less. Peers and parents would point it out all the time.  While everyone else in Hangul Hakyo (Korean school) practiced writing their perfect Korean names, I’d have to write a whole extra character block. Like tracing a sixth finger.

Ok. Maybe that’s a bit melodramatic, but I think in some ways I learned to cope with a kind of sixth-finger identity, if only in the sense that I always felt a little out of place, fumbling my way through either context (all white or all Korean). Where in the hyphenated continuum do I really belong? If there’s a “real” way to say my last name, is the other way not, or less, real?  (All this for a married last name, mind you, and not even “mine”–more identity mashup for another time–and Hubbie’s dad went so far as to change the legal spelling early on so that people might be more inclined to pronounce it correctly: Koh-ng instead of Kong. And here we are, reversing all his hard work.)

The real kicker: the time when Mister asked The Question. It was some totally banal, nondescript day in the middle of watching Bob the Builder or something. I paused like I always do, but for much longer. I went into hyper self-aware, aware-for-offspring mode. Do I tell him the easy way so that it’s easy for his friends to say? But it shouldn’t be too hard to teach the real way if it’s said right from the very beginning. But what if they butcher it anyway–isn’t that worse?

So in between “Can we fix it? Yes we can!” and “Uh, yeah, I think so,” I explained the nuances to my five year old. Heck, if he can get Shel Silverstein’s word gymnastics, I figured he could understand this. I told him about the two ways to pronounce it. He got it. He beamed, “I like having two ways.” It was as simple as that. And all of a sudden, more was more. No questions asked.

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3 responses to “How do you pronounce your last name?

  1. Debbie

    My answers are simple: Like On/Off.

  2. Christine Chun

    i’d love to have that simple child-like view of things.
    it makes life more enjoyable and happier overall, wouldn’t you agree?
    this put a big ol’ smile on my face : )

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