July 2, 2019
I remember my 7th birthday well. I spent most of the day in the air, flying across the endless, blue Pacific. My head was spinning, as it usually does while on long flights, but this time it was for a unique reason: we were moving from the Philippines to the United States. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the permanence of the move or what it would exactly entail. What I did feel, though, was buzzing excitement to be on the other side of the world. To be where my favorite TV shows were created and where the heftiness of the dollar couldn’t be understated.
I was excited to be moving to the center of the world.
The move made total sense. I was a narcissistic kid growing up, so I always believed I would be the one. I was convinced I’d be the greatest new inventor. Or the guy to make some revolutionary discovery while exploring space. Or the greatest artist to exist in the 21st century. Whatever it was, it seemed destined that the USA be my launching pad for greatness.
But greatness requires a great name. Sunghoon is a fine name, but have you heard of any famous people named Sunghoon? No way. I needed a name that was cool. A name that you could see on a book cover and wouldn’t make you put it back on the shelf immediately. I wanted a name that gave me confidence and one that didn’t make me feel like the odd one out.
The flight attendants stopped by my seat, hearing that it was my birthday, and handed me a cake while congratulating me on my 36-hour long birthday, not doing the greatest job hiding their pity for the boy who had to spend his 7th birthday in a tight air cabin. Not too concerned with my situation, I happily spooned the cake into my mouth.
In a final act of celebration, I gifted myself a new name. James.
Growing up, I couldn’t fully escape my real name because, according to every legal document and roster, Sunghoon is the one and only name that I possess. This came to haunt me in weird and specific ways.
In grade school, I absolutely hated having substitute teachers. Of course, there were the normal reasons for not liking them: having one usually meant getting a lot of meaningless busy work, and a lot of them were just unnecessarily rude (totally understandable, though, as their kids can be far worse). But I experienced something more dreadful. The roll call. It was the same every single time. The substitute would take the list and, one by one, call out each student’s name, pausing to hear “present” from a claimer of each title. This was pretty painless for most. Adam Johnson never had to worry about the pronunciation of his name. Neither did Sarah Schweitzer. But you could bet that Sunghoon Kwak was anxiously deliberating his plan of attack.
As the substitute moved down the list, they would effortlessly rattle off the names. “Timothy Harris… Rachel Ingrid… Paulina Jonas… Terrance Kingston…” Uh oh. Their eyes would furrow.
The class would erupt in laughter.
“Don’t you mean James?” a friend of mine would ask.
“Yeah,” I would nod, trying to seem unbothered. “Call me James.”
But the damage was done. I had associated James with the version of myself I wanted to be. And as for Sunghoon? As far as I was concerned, that name was to be forgotten, left in the dust with my other embarrassing traits.
My efforts to fit in and become a part of the whole mutated into an unhealthy need for external validation. My attitude changed from wanting greatness because of my internal motivators to craving acceptance from those around me.
I gave up the dream of studying computer science despite being in love with technology growing up because CS didn’t fit the mold of “cool” I had created for myself. I didn’t want to be a faceless Asian man in the crowd of millions. I kept my music taste a secret because alternative-rock was too weird and because I was scared that deviating from liking the newest hip-hop would relegate me to the bottom of the social totem pole. I detested slim-fit jeans when they were “too feminine” but turned around and wore them religiously when they were the new hot fashion trend.
Almost every decision was met with the same question: “What would others think of me?” I had embraced being a social chameleon.
And that chameleon was much better received when named James rather than Sunghoon.
But I’ve grown a lot in the last couple of years. From my time in India to my first year in college and everything in between. I’ve pushed myself and have been pushed around. Despite my shortcomings and failures, I had one constant thing to fall back to as the years whirled around me: myself. While my environments drastically changed, I learned to entertain myself. I learned to try the things I would have never dreamt of trying. I learned to love myself and discovered the true meaning of love without a contingency. An appreciation of myself no matter how the world saw me, trusting in unwavering allegiance to my values and morals.
As I’ve gained confidence and learned to love myself, I’ve had less of a need to be validated. I’m starting to shed the skin that changes color based on my environment, and, as a result, I’ve decided to shed my name as well.
James is a fine name, but greatness requires a great name, and Sunghoon is great because it’s my name.
November 16, 2017
I’m having an identity crisis.
It’s an ongoing one, actually. Let me elaborate:
As a Korean child living in the US, I felt that my Korean background would be something that would stay with me, but also something that would slowly fade as I grew older. As a result, I’d try to overcompensate for my loss of culture by partaking in activities that exemplified the ideal Korean. These activities included, but were not limited to, downing spicy dishes, listen to edgy and niche Korean bands, and watching Asian serials on TV. I grew to dislike doing anything involving the last two, so I held onto my affinity for spicy foods as if it were my last strand of connection to anything Korean.
For most Koreans, being able to handle spicy things is a source of pride. I am no exception. I can recall many instances where I would muscle through the spiciest dishes with tears running down my face because it somehow made me feel more connected to my roots. In fact, just months before landing in India, I held a contest with my American friends involving an insanely spicy noodle mix from Korea. The winner would be the one to finish their entire bowl. ‘There’s no way I’ll let my non-Korean peers win,’ I thought at the time. Despite protests from my burning tongue and the rumblings of my bowels, I forced the noodles down, gasping for air once I finished the deadly meal.
In the same way that an individual who is insecure with their sexuality is ashamed to show any acts that would imply a deviation from the norm, I was ashamed to show any signs of struggle when handling the spiciness of certain dishes. Whenever I would visit a relative in Korea, they would ask if I am able to handle spicy food.
“No, he’s not too great with heat,” my mom would always say.
In return, I’d deny her remark harshly. I’d foolishly force myself to eat the hottest meal soon after. To me, displaying that I could eat tongue-numbing foods in front of my Korean relatives was the ultimate test of whether I was truly Korean. To me, an assumption that I couldn’t handle spice was the greatest insult to my identity.
Not super healthy. I know.
I needed to confront the problem, and what better place to do it than the home of some of the spiciest food around – AKA India? In fact, I faced one of the hottest dishes I have ever tasted just before landing in Delhi. The biryani (rice dish) being served in the Air India flight looked especially appetizing. I took a spoonful of rice and shoveled it into my mouth.
Have you ever had something so unpleasant in your mouth that you’d be willing to devote your life to a deity or confess your worst sins just be able to spit it right out? No? Me neither. But this was probably the closest thing to making that scenario a reality.
I swallowed and forced a few more spoonfuls into my mouth. The roof of my mouth was burning, but I didn’t want to admit it. I looked around to see if anyone else was struggling with the food. I saw Emma and Ayla covering their mouths, eyes wide open.
“I’m screwed if all Indian food is like this,” I heard Creede mutter.
I laughed and put my spoon down. There was nobody to impress. Nobody would think less of me if I wouldn’t be able to finish this scorching meal. It was liberating in a way.
“This is really spicy,” I admitted to Emma, who sat right next to me. She was unaware that I had just come out of the spice-closet. I didn’t have to fake liking hot food anymore. It felt great.
Funnily, I haven’t encountered anything as spicy as that biryani from our initial flight into Delhi. It was almost like the universe was trying to say, “You’re nothing special” right before plopping me down into the spice central of the world.
Despite now being averse to hot food, I didn’t feel any less Korean. In fact, I felt even more so in an environment that is so unfamiliar to me.
Ever since, I have been openly rejecting spicy foods, and my host family has acknowledged that I like my food milder than an average Bob Ross episode. A few days ago, before ordering some biryani, my host mom asked me if I could handle spicy food.
“No, I’m not too great with heat,” I admitted with a smile.
To read more, check out my blog site on Wordpress!