Kyung-Hee is my first name.
Well, ... the first name ever given to me.
It means a bright hope, like the first rays of the morning sun.
Once, when I had asked my Grandmother about my name, she opened her armoire, unlocked a small chest and pulled out several scrolls of paper that had Chinese characters written on them.
One of them was mine.
My Grandmother had paid for these names, mine and the names of my cousins, to be chosen and written out by the local scholar. They were names imbued with meaning and auspicious portent. I held the scroll in my hands and admired the alluring brushstrokes that I could not comprehend.
It was strange to think that my name was a commodity that my Grandmother had purchased. This illusive thing, a name, is just a word; but it contains for some an identity; and for others like my superstitious Grandmother, it contained a destiny. With the purchase of these scrolls, she had secured my birthright.
A very long time ago in Korea, names were used as devices to ward off evil. When a precious child was born, she was often given a terrible name to deceive the evil spirits into thinking that the child was worthless. There are rare stories in which we hear of ancient kings being named, “dog shit” or something equally revolting. Times have changed, and most families give their children the very best names.
My family immigrated to the United States when I was 18 months old. I started Kindergarten at age 4 without the ability to speak a word of English. My teacher called me Karry, I’ve been told, because she couldn’t pronounce my given name. One of my earliest memories involves sheets of paper all around me and a pencil placed awkwardly in my hands. My mother, who didn’t speak any English herself, is teaching me to write my new name. Within 6 months, I was speaking English as fluently as the kids down the street. And that quickly, my Korean tongue was forgotten.
My Grandmother was a well-known midwife in our neighborhood in Korea. When I spent my summers in her 5-story house as a young girl, my cousins and I would tip toe around the first floor, where the clinic was located. There were nights when we would wake up to the sound of a newborn taking in its first breath and crying out its introduction to the world.
All of my cousins had been born in my Grandmother’s clinic guided by her skilled hands. I was slated to be birthed there as well until complications occurred. My mother had to be rushed to the nearby hospital where they immediately prepared us for surgery. After I was born, my mother continued to lie in her hospital bed, persistently weak and unable to heal. Everyday, my Grandmother came to see her and sternly admonished her to get better - sometimes yelling, sometimes pleading. Finally, the doctors realized that my mother was suffering from an infection due to a gauze pad that had been left in her uterus after the surgery. She had nearly died.
I’ve heard this story told so many times by my Grandmother. Each time she tells it, she adds another bit of information or another piece of dialogue that I hadn’t heard before; but the story remains essentially the same.
“You were this small, this small!” my Grandmother often concludes, cupping her two hands together when telling the story of how my mother had nearly died while giving me life.
My Grandmother is one of the few people on this earth who still calls me by my given name. I was Kyung-Hee when we left Korea, and I suppose I still am today. In Korea, Kyung-Hee is the name given to the titular character in a soap opera or mini drama on television. When I hear my Grandmother say my name, it rolls pleasantly along a stream and skips nimbly like little drops of pebbles skidding across a still lake. So much of that is lost in translation. When I hear an English speaker say my name, it sounds clunky and awkward, like a missed note on an untuned piano.
Was this why my Kindergarten teacher decided to rename me? Perhaps she thought the other kids would make fun of me. Perhaps she felt she could shield me from the frustrations of having to hear my name, my birthright, repeatedly bludgeoned by foreign tongues and their incorrect pronunciations. Perhaps she sought to confer upon me a new identity.
On rare occasions when my whole family gets together, they will sometimes exchange stories of those nostalgic and murky days when we lived in Korea. There’s so much about that part of my life that I still don’t know. At times, I wish I could remember them too.
And invariably, my Grandmother will recount with watery eyes the day we left Korea.
“Your two little chopstick legs were dangling out from under your mother’s arms!” She would then hold out her index and middle fingers indicating that my 18-month-old legs had been that small.
“How would those little legs survive in such a big country?” she laments, reliving the heartache of seeing us go.
Today, my cousin has a daughter named Sophia, and she calls me Auntie Karry. Once when Sophia was still quite a baby, my Aunt, her grandmother, took me aside and discreetly informed me that in Korean, the word sophie means to take a piss.
“Ah, Kyung-Hee-ah! But they had already given her that name. What could I do? I just kept quiet,” she whispered to me in despair. I nodded in sympathy and smiled.
“Don’t worry Auntie, Sophia is a beautiful name in English, and at least this way the evil spirits will stay away.”