My Name Story featured on King 5May 6, 2014
Name Story Debut at Have You Eaten ExhibitJanuary 1, 2023
Who gave you your name?
Chances are, they were given to you by your parents or other family members with some care and thought given to its meaning. This was the case for my husband and I when we adopted our children and now that their personalities have developed, we marvel at the meaning of their names and how fitting they are to how they show up in the world.
I immigrated to this country when I was 6 years old. I have just a handful of memories from that time and one of them was registering for school in Queens, NYC to start 1st grade. I was there with my 3 cousins, who immigrated with us, and my younger brother. We all came in with our Korean birth names. The woman at the school office asked each of us our names and based on a sound of our Korean names, she decided to come up with an American ones. She didn’t ask if we wanted them or asked permission from our parents who probably couldn't respond anyway because they didn't speak English.
I never liked my “go-by” name Judy because it never quite felt like me. I never felt like it belonged to me and me to it so I always fantasized about what name I would like for myself. The perfect opportunity came up when I applied for citizenship when I was 20 years old because you could simultaneously receive a name change with just one simple page of paperwork. Back then, I had nothing to my name so it would’ve been easy but when I thought about having to ask people who already knew me to call me by a different name, I cringed and felt uncomfortable so decided to make “Judy” legal and official.
These are choices I’ve never felt like I could make for myself until recently and so, when I reflect back on my 20 year old self, I can understand why I didn’t change my name. I had no sense of self and was taking up so little space that the idea of even voicing a desire and asking others to respect it felt unsafe.
I’ve been thinking about my name a lot lately. The past 5 years have been about reclamation of self, shedding what does and doesn’t belong to me, figuring out who I am and my values and how I want to show up in the world. These are choices I’ve never felt like I could make for myself until recently and so, when I reflect back on my 20 year old self, I can understand why I didn’t change my name. I had no sense of self and was taking up so little space that the idea of even voicing a desire and asking others to respect it felt unsafe. Today is different. I practice taking up space as much as I can and so the question of my name has naturally returned. It feels like a piece of the puzzle of selfhood I have yet to claim yet the thought of changing it, the significance of the name, as well as the paperwork with the accompanying time and expenses feel overwhelming.
When I tell people about my name story, I often get asked what my birth name was and why I don’t consider going back to it. There are so many reasons but mostly, it was the name given to me by my father and one of the things I had to do to claim myself was to stop living for him and finally choose myself. It took me until my mid 40s to do because it was so painful and difficult so it just doesn’t feel right to return to that name.
One of the gifts of going on this journey to selfhood has been the community of women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting and with whom I’ve surrounded myself. Finding community by talking with other AAPI women with their own name stories felt like a natural and necessary step to help me process my name. I’ve been thinking about My Name Story project for over a year and am finally deep into it. Thus far, I’ve interviewed on video and created portraits with 5 AAPI women who have struggled with their names. Each woman’s story is unique and encompasses a different aspect of their name and I receive gifts of thoughts, feelings and ideas from each, giving me a framework to think about my own name.
I don’t know what the outcome will be of this project or my personal name journey but what I do know is that sharing our stories, which is often left out of the stories we hear about the “American experience,” is important and necessary. This project is ultimately about giving voice to our experiences, whether we are 1st or 4th generation, which help comprise the complicated fabric of the American experience.
This post was originally written for my previous site Judy Lee Photography.
*Cover photo was a session I had with Sterling Rose Art. I am photographed with a scarf with Korean lettering to help me process my relationship to Korean and my Korean name.