I introduce myself as Bianca — the name bounces rather than rolls off the tongue, makes the voice dip like the blunt nose of a crayon-colored propeller airplane and lilts like a lopsided smile.
Everyone is surprised when I tell them I chose my own name — what parent in their right mind would let their kid do that? Haven’t we all had that phase of wanting to call ourselves some alphabet-soup name we heard on TV or read in a fantasy book? I have a string of such names that I’ve packed away in the attic of my memories like old childhood toys: Cynthia and Tiffany are most prominent. Each one names a different prototype of myself that I wished or imagined I was — friend of fairies! Warrior from another world! Of course, I’m thankful to be able to refer to them in the past tense, to laugh at the silly stories I fantasized about. Those versions of myself are now little more than pages in a one-subject notebook, detailing imaginative escapades over which I superimposed myself. I wonder if I’ll ever look back on Bianca with regret, but unlike the others, I say it out loud, and it’s stamped on my brand-new U.S. passport, after the name my parents chose for me and before the one they handed down to me. Hyerim Bianca Nam.
Those first six letters have been the source of much contention throughout my short life, beginning in the first grade when my teacher squinted her gray-blue eyes at my name and said, “Hi… reem?” Even in Korean my name requires several repetitions and spellings to sink in. What could I expect of America? Feeling painfully small in a world of pale eyes and pale hair, I nodded as my father frowned and attempted to correct Ms. Rixen from behind my curled shoulders. He was too late; that would be my name until the 10th grade, when the move to another school gave me the opportunity and idea to experience rebirth and reclaim my name. I went through crazy contortions to accommodate others, even coming up with a gimmicky routine: “Say ‘yeti.’ Now, add an ‘h’ sound so you have ‘hyeti.’ Then add an ‘m’ to get ‘hyetim.’”
And yet that wasn’t enough; to this day, some people just outright stop addressing me by my name when I go by Hyerim. They either forget or don’t want to mispronounce my name, so I become the unspoken space after the “hey—” or the meaningfully raised eyebrow that directs their question at me specifically. And so I shrink, I wither, I dwindle like a suffocated ember.
Such a diminishment is unbearable, in part because of the history behind my name. My mother put in an alarming degree of preparation into my creation; the lady literally engineered me, down to the moment of the C-section. She consulted fortunetellers and astrologists before deciding what day I should be conceived and born, and paid a priest to give me a powerful name. (In Korean culture, each given name is composed of two characters, which we believe can determine the child’s fate or bestow them with certain qualities.) That is my given name: Hyerim, the marriage between hye of wisdom and intelligence and rim of forest, to signify that I bear within me great groves of sagacity. Thankfully, I don’t take myself that seriously, but I enjoy the thought that although I am ridiculous at times, underneath the frivolity there is a seed of fresh, green promise rooted inside of me, waiting to sprout into vast swaths of million-leaved foliage.
Such forests yet dormant, I have wrestled wildly with how to present myself each time I joined a new community. I have been Hyerim; I have been Nam. The summer I turned 18, I tossed and turned and anxiously consulted my friends with a list of possible names before finally flying to Maryland and introducing myself brightly as simply Nam. When we first applied to the seminar, we had submitted several personal essays. Apparently, those had been shared with our professor, because one day over lunch I overheard her discussing mine with my peers.
“She said her name was Nam, and I was confused because I read her essay about how she’s struggled with people mispronouncing or not saying her name. She wrote about how she refused to simplify its pronunciation or adopt an American name because that would be denying herself. I guess that was why I was so surprised when she wanted to simplify her name.”
It was odd to hear myself being discussed so, to realize that I might be the subject of a casual conversation, politely inserted between bites of lasagna and sips of mineral water. The feeling in my stomach was odder still: nausea, emptiness, confusion, guilt. She wasn’t wrong; the reason I had chosen my last name over my first name was because I didn’t like being erased into an innuendo. I had thought that I was exercising my freedom by calling myself by my last name, but had I been doing exactly what I frowned upon my brother for doing when he legally changed his name to Hugo and erased the Korean Hyung Ju entirely? Was I denying and burying a piece of myself and my cultural heritage out of shame, out of a need to cater to others’ convenience?
That odd shame remained with me all day as I tried to define and understand myself. I pulled Hyerim out of storage and examined her amusing, meaningful history: All those multitudes of gently swaying boughs, rustling with whispered promises of worldly wisdom, held inside the single seed named Hyerim. And maybe, subconsciously, I had rejected that by asking to be called by my last name. However, the more I turned the matter over and over in my mind, the more I realized that it wasn’t so. My given name is my treasure that I guard jealously. However, that doesn’t invalidate my desire and independent choice to append to my identity, to explore and introduce who I am on my own terms, in my own words — because I want to and not because they want me to. We are sentient and self-aware; we know ourselves more intimately and completely than anyone else, and we all should have that opportunity, that space and time to accept or reject what was given to us and then ask for the chance to give it a try ourselves.
Aware that I would soon apply for U.S. citizenship and have the option to change my legal name, supported by my parents, for whom self-determination and independence are core values, I began a long journey of introspection. I scribbled, considered, then crossed out name after name, trying to find the one that perfectly captured the person I thought I was. It was only when I realized that my name shouldn’t draw a line around my identity but provide a foundation on top of which to build and grow, that I rediscovered Bianca, a name I first met stitched in elegant letters on the linen label of a beautiful, amethyst-purple sweater folded away in my mother’s closet, a made-in-Italy memoir of her maiden days. Despite the luxurious associations I have with the name, it means, quite simply, white: a clean, fresh canvas. I liked — in Korean, we would say it fit into my heart — that Bianca was, on paper, a simple yet sophisticated and svelte young woman, yet the moment you voiced her out loud she came to vivid, vivacious life. I imagine that when you trace over the shape of my name with your tongue and mull over its flavor, hear me burst into peals of uncontrollable laughter, you will know me as I know myself. By introducing myself to you, I invite you; I share me with you.
Bianca, or any other name I may choose for myself, is my middle name; it is my homage to my roots that Hyerim, the first name I ever had, be the first name the world knows me by. And despite this journey, I hold that my names do not define me: I am the architect, the pilot. I define my names, because ultimately only I define myself. And this, I propose, is my art.
Hyerim Bianca Nam | firstname.lastname@example.org