Why I Use A Fake Name

It can take Americans weeks, or even months, to learn how to correctly pronounce a Korean name.
06/01/2017 04:48 pm ET

My name is Hae Seung Hwang – and Jasmine, Jennifer, Jenny and Jamie.

The tale of my five names goes back to kindergarten, or even Ellis Island.

 I invented my first fake name, Jasmine, after the “Aladdin” princess. The proof that my new moniker was legit: the light blue J-A-S-M-I-N-E on the back of a girly white chair. 

Jennifer came next, out of revenge. It was my five-year-old-ex-best friend’s new bestie’s name. When I got bored of my revenge name, I became Jenny to change things up.

Then in 2003, I begged my brother’s English teacher for a list of J names. I always wanted everything that my big brother had, including the first letter of his name. So I became Jamie at the end of that summer, just before I moved to California for elementary school. Little did I know that it was a unisex name, or that it was the name of the man who would become the lead actor in the “Fifty Shade of Grey” films.

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My home country, South Korea, ranks third (behind China and India) among countries that sent more than 1 million students to U.S. universities in the 2015-2016 academic year. Like me, many Korean students randomly choose an easy-to-pronounce English name. (Interestingly, Korean children usually pick an American-sounding nickname in kindergarten or elementary school to try to make them feel more culturally immersed in their English classes.)

Each nickname comes with a story. When he was in middle school, my friend Hyung Seok Yun watched a CNN interview with a Toby. Guess what he goes by now? Another friend, Kang Hoon Moon, chose Eric because his sister’s went by Erika. Yul Hee Kim chose Reina because she knew it meant “queen” in Spanish! Even Korean manicurists use English names on their nametags. How do they choose them? They shrugged and continued filing.

I’m only following what has been going on since immigrants first began to come to this country. People often changed their names, first and last, as they entered through Ellis Island. There’s some controversy over whether families did so voluntarily or whether clerks misspelled them due to the language barrier. Regardless, the new names made it easier for them to blend in and fit in. 

It’s not that I’m selling out. I’m proud of my Korean heritage, and I still go by Hae Seung when I’m back home. But Jamie makes life easier here. And I’ve always liked that J sound.

It can take Americans weeks or even months to learn how to correctly pronounce a Korean name. Teachers get it wrong on the first day – and often last – day of school. In their defense, the vowel sounds don’t exist in English, says Eunmi Lee, an associate professor of instruction who launched the Korean language program at Northwestern University.

Students who use their real Korean names repeat and spell them multiple times when they meet people. These stalwarts persevere because they want to honor their heritage or because they don’t want to deal with their legal names not matching their made-up monikers.

My brother, Jae Seung Hwang, picked Oscar to stand out. To come up with it, he conducted a mini focus group with his Korean-American college friends. They rejected the overused John, Brian and Steve.

Oscar noticed a significant difference when he morphed into Oscar. Professors remembered him and even called on him more often in class because they could pronounce his name.

So should I go for name No. 6? I considered Chanel after watching “Screen Queens.”

But then I realized I identify too much with Jamie now. And it’s neither too common nor too weird: It ranked No. 499 on the U.S. government’s list of most popular baby girl names last year. One of my Korean friends got so used to being Brian that he forgot to write his real Korean name at the airport ticket kiosk and got held off for an hour for using a fake name.

It’s not that I’m selling out. I’m proud of my Korean heritage, and I still go by Hae Seung when I’m back home. But Jamie makes life easier here. And I’ve always liked that J sound.

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