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What’s in a Name? -- creative nonfiction by Wonjoo Lee

“Everyone please pay attention and be quiet so that I can take attendance.”


Ah, the dreaded five minutes of a substitute teacher taking roll call had commenced.


“Joe.”


“Here.”


“Amy.”


“Hi.”


Going quite smoothly, right? Stay tuned.


“Um… Wo… I’m sorry, Woo…”


Uh-oh. Can you hear the disaster approaching in the substitute’s now shaky, uncertain voice?


“Woon-hoo?”


There you have it.


“Here.”


For the record, my name is Wonjoo. It is pronounced exactly the way it looks: Won, as in I “won” the game, and joo as in juice minus the -ce sound. It doesn’t seem too hard, right? If you just sound out the letters assuming all of the letters sound the way they usually would, you end up pronouncing my name the way it is supposed to be pronounced.


In a place as diverse as America, it is not unusual to encounter beautifully unique names. While it is completely understandable for people to pronounce them incorrectly, sometimes it seems that some of us could put a little more effort into getting it right. Even with a name like mine that is pronounced exactly the way it is spelled, people seem to try to make it harder than it is. When seeing an unfamiliar name on the attendance sheet, it seems as if teachers assume that it is pronounced differently, as if the letters don’t make the sounds they usually do in English but are part of an alphabet made solely for the purpose of spelling foreign names.


Unfortunately, “Woon-hoo” is nowhere near the worst attempt I have heard. I have gotten a “Won-john”, a “Won-joe”, a “Won-jee”, and even a “Mon-joo”. I always wonder if the letters are still in good shape and in the same position they were in before, or if they grew limbs, called a friend to hold their spot, and left to have lunch. Whatever the reason, I have been called way too many different names for my liking. 


Are you mortified yet? Do you wish it would all stop and my name would just be my name? Me too. But the worst is yet to come. Whenever I type my name into a Microsoft Word document, it autocorrects it to Wonton. And just like that, I’ve been transformed into a dumpling. 


My parents are immigrants from South Korea, and I was born in America. As a result, I am completely Korean but I have American citizenship. My grandfather suggested a Korean name for me that has a beautiful meaning: the most precious jewel. That is my name right now: Wonjoo. However, my parents considered naming me Lauren, an English name so that I could avoid all of the pronunciation mistakes and perhaps seem a little less foreign. This makes me think; is being foreign something that is not desirable?


 The definition of foreign in the sense of names and people is “of, from, in, or characteristic of a country or language other than one's own”, according to the Oxford dictionary. There is a second definition, however, that means “strange and unfamiliar.” Unlike the neutral first definition, the second definition has a slightly negative connotation. Could the second definition have come from opinions that anything or anyone of, from, or in a country different than one’s own is strange, or in other words, not normal?


We as people have unconscious biases. It is impossible for everyone and everything to be considered equal in our minds, no matter how hard we may try. The thought that everyone and everything that is unknown or unfamiliar to us is abnormal is in everyone, and though we may know in our heads that it is an extremely self-centered belief, we cannot help but think it in certain situations. Although we all have these biases, there seems to be two groups that most people can be sorted into: those who succumb to them, and those who can suppress them. 


The people who succumb to their unconscious and usually illogical biases show it in their actions, words, behavior, or on their faces. If they encounter a foreign classmate eating foreign food, for example, they may scrunch up their face, move away, or even make an insulting comment. These actions are what cause students from different countries and cultures to feel abnormal and strange while doing what they were most comfortable with. Soon, this comfort is replaced by a fear: fear of being left out. As this fear grows, their pride for their unique culture will fade, and depending on the intensity of the fear, their pride can even turn to disdain. The unconscious actions of the people in this group have a power that is much greater and much more dangerous than they know as they can cause a gradual disappearance of the work of generations.


On the other hand, the people who have the ability and concern to at least suppress their biases will keep their initial, possibly illogical reactions to differences in their heads. If these people encountered a foreign classmate eating foreign food, they would just move on from it and not acknowledge it as different or odd. This action of making no special acknowledgement to the situation is very easy, but it will let the foreign student know that staying true to his/her culture is not something that is abnormal or hard to accept. The power of this simple decision can give the people of the world more chances to understand and accept each other in the future.


What if my name was Lauren? Would I have been considered less foreign at first glance? Would I have appreciated my name being correctly pronounced, the same as all of the other Laurens on the class roster? Most importantly, would I have kept the pride I have in my Korean heritage? Although these questions do not have answers, I know that I have pride in my name, culture, and unique self, and that will never change along with the pronunciation of my name in roll call.

Wonjoo Lee is an upcoming 10th grader living in Ohio. She has been involved in her high school’s band, dance team, and Korean club since she was a freshman. She is currently working on submitting her writing to multiple organizations in hopes of getting published, and she has dreams of becoming a writer that will inspire and amaze in the future.

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