My young friend who works as an ESL instructor narrows his eyes as he says all his Asian students call themselves by English nicknames.
“Like, Bruce, or Steve.” His hampered delivery, together with the constriction of his facial muscles, communicates a sentiment somewhere around scorn and regret.
“Well, I’m Kate,” I tell him. What I wanted to say is that there is nothing wrong about an immigrant to have an American name. Instead, I find myself explaining: “People can’t pronounce my legal name. Nobody could, so I let them call me by my initial ‘K.’ Some of them thought it was ‘Kay,’ and I didn’t mind. Other people thought it was ‘Kate,’ so I eventually became a ‘Kate.’”
“How do you pronounce your Korean name?” He wants to know.
I say it quickly, slightly embarrassed for a reason that I cannot identify at that moment.
He repeats it and I cringe.
“You don’t seem to be comfortable with that,” he says.
In fact I am not.
“In Korea, people my age are rarely called by their first names,” I tell him. Instead of going into how I really feel—that it hurts my feelings to think that I was not accepted as Kate—I tell him that in Korea an adult person is more likely to be called by her title than by her first name. I don’t tell him that in Korea one doesn’t call a person ten years his senior by her first name like he just did. He would be calling her “noo-nim,” which means big sister. But I don’t want him to call me that. We don’t relate to each other that way. This is an American relationship. I’m Kate and Kate is the only appropriate name for me between he and I.
For the following few weeks, the leftover impression of this interaction bothers me like sand in my shoe. The thing is, I felt rejected as an American being and as if I was asked to keep my place as a foreigner in the country that I’ve considered home for so many years. Americans, even the best of them—particularly the best of them—like to see immigrants as those ethnic beings that bring exotic flavors from faraway places to their home. They want us to preserve our distinctiveness.
Some immigrants, in fact most of them I suppose, welcome this. All of us, I’m sure, are grateful for the generosity with which non-immigrant Americans accept us. But I sometimes wonder if this form of acceptance also constitutes a version of exclusion. By encouraging preservation of ethnic identity and celebrating cultural differences, are the compassionate natives in effect saying, “You are not one of us,” and pushing us away into a conceptual ghetto?
The truth is that I often feel exactly like the character in the short story by Nell Freudenberger in which a SAT tutor from India is asked by his student how he could understand her American self.
Because I am not any different, he wanted to tell her. He wanted grab her shoulders: If we are what we want, I am the same as you.
Most immigrants are proud of their heritage, and are eager to preserve and represent the culture and civilization of their origin. Many of them learn to demand that the majority American respect their ethnic identity. Take an example of a Facebook post by a friend’s friend that I read a few weeks ago. This middle-eastern immigrant (or descendent, I don’t know which) had used an American nickname for years, but now she was requesting people to call her by her full name. In this beautiful post, she said that using the American name, which she did for the convenience of others, never felt right for her deep inside. She wrote she wanted to send a message to her children that it was not all right to compromise one’s identity just because it is unusual. I appreciate her position and support her decision. I think it is fantastic. In my humble opinion, it is a very American thing to do to assert one’s identity this way.
So, let me assert my own blend of identity that is rather peculiar and particular: I am Kate. Ethnicity is not a big part of my sense of who I am. But if you insist, I guess I see myself as an immigrant American more than anything else. I don’t feel I’m merely a product of the environment in which I grew up. I am a work in progress, constantly growing and restructuring myself as I go through life experiences where I live, both physically and mentally. I don’t mind my full legal name being used as long as it is in an appropriate context and with an appropriate title. But I feel Kate is my “real” name in an American setting. It is not fake just because it is not legally recognized. I use this name in combination with my legal last name in professional settings; I use it with another last name in creative situations. But mostly, I am just me, this conscious experience of having this thought right at this moment.