*The Mystic Soul Project is having a blog conversation on the importance, sanctity, and fluidity of names & naming. Permission is granted by the author to re-post this amazing excerpt of "Raise Your Voice" as we continue this conversation
Before I was Kathy Khang, I was Khang KyoungAh, my Korean name given to me by my paternal grandfather. In Korean names, the first syllable or character is the family name or “last name.” Unlike Western names that start by identifying the individual, many Eastern culture names begin with the family name because of the value of collective identity. Before me is we. The Chinese characters (Chinese because Korea was once occupied by the Chinese) for my given name means congratulations because I was the first girl born to my father’s side of the family in four generations. My birth, a girl born into patriarchy, was celebrated. But that celebration and story got lost when we immigrated to America and I became Kathy. My parents had little hope that the American dream included people willing to learn the correct pronunciation of such a precious part of family history.
I read through five Bible commentaries and went through multiple Google searches to see if I could get an idea of what Jewish and Persian beauty standards were at the time of Esther, with no luck. But whatever those standards were, clearly Esther’s beauty passed the test. My black female friends and I have talked about cultural preferences for lighter skin, so-called good hair, and other physical traits that are valued more than others. My Korean ancestors, with limited proximity to black or African people in a fairly homogenous country, valued light skin because darker skin was associated with the lower class who usually worked outside as laborers and farmers. Black women in the United States learned to hate their dark skin because it was the very thing that identified them as less than human in a country that saw fit to enslave Africans. The concept of passing is a racial one. Black women, unless they are very light-skinned and have so-called good hair, can’t pass as white. As a Korean American with dark hair, a nose with an almost non-existent bridge, and eyes that are creased but differently so than my white friends, the only way I can pass into white American culture is to assume what privileges education and socioeconomic status can get me and downplay the differences.
So, much like Hadassah became Esther, I became Kathy. We both lost so much of our history and story, but in both cases it was a matter of survival and assimilation. The energy exerted to survive unfortunately can also mean connection to our communities gets weakened or lost. Esther, holed up in the king’s harem pretending she isn’t Jewish, loses touch with her community and has no idea that her people are facing destruction. Her limited privilege actually removes her from the community news. Esther adopts the rhythms of court life, probably eating whatever is put before her and perhaps not paying attention to the sounds announcing prayer. For me, trying desperately to become American meant distancing myself from what felt foreign in my life and clinging to any semblance of so-called whiteness—my name, not eating Korean food in public, being embarrassed of my parents’ accents and use of Korean in public. My kids may have fewer inhibitions about taking Korean food to school, but their first names are still stereotypical white American names. Maybe Mordecai hoped the same thing my parents hoped—that deep down inside, Esther and I would always know who we were and not be ashamed.
When Esther hears her uncle is wandering around in sackcloth and ashes, she doesn’t respond as a good Jewish woman who would understand that her uncle was acting that way out of mourning. Instead, she sends her servant to give him some “normal” clothes in hopes her uncle will stop. I just rolled my eyes at my parents and asked for a perm and designer jeans. But at some point in our journey of losing and finding ourselves, we can hope that someone calls out our behavior and comes alongside us. The parts of our story that get lost or buried can only stay hidden for so long if we want to truly be whole and become who God created us to be. Esther has to choose who she will be. She has to recognize the parts she hid away and ignored. She has to come to terms with how her personal safety may not be what is at stake but something greater.
Until college I let classmates and teachers actually mispronounce my last name because it was easier to let it go. It turned out it wasn't easier. It was as easy to turn around and re-educate everyone at my 20th high school reunion. However, reclaiming my Korean given name has been more complex, and I've chosen, for now, to simply tell the story that gets lost in translation. Koreans use their family name first followed by a given name that indicates generation and an individual marker. We are identified by family first and always, the loss I believe has a profound impact when applied here in the US.
*Taken from Raise Your Voice by Kathy Khang. Copyright (c) 2018 by Kathy Khang. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com