I had two names growing up: my American name and my Korean name. It seems complicated, but it isn't really.
In school, my name was Lydia. For my friends throughout most of my life, I was Lydia. On my license and any legal documents, it was Lydia.
But to my family and to myself, I was always Yeeun.
“Yeeun–ah, how’s school lately?”
“Yeeun–ah, come down for dinner!”
“Yeeun–ah, help me pick up groceries!”
Having only ever been called "Yeeun" in my home, I saw myself more through my Korean name than what "Lydia" could ever suffice in capturing.
It was through my dad’s sing–songy “Yeeun–ah” that I knew he needed my help. It was through my mom’s “Yoo Yeeun, get your ass over here!” that I knew I was in hot water. It was through my halmoni's delighted, “You’ve gotten so big, Yeeun!” when she came to visit.
These seemingly trivial moments when I was called by my Korean name were when I felt most myself. It was almost like "Lydia" showed only the image that I had to portray to the public eye, but through "Yeeun" was where I could be authentically me.
It was a no–brainer decision for me to go by my Korean name when I entered college, but what I truly underestimated was how transformative it could be.
Seeing “YEEUN YOO” on my PennCard or the simple act of introducing myself with my Korean name to peers and professors made me feel like I was finally being seen. I realized that it was more than just getting to be called a name I felt most connected to, but also being able to unapologetically exist in my Korean identity. It was a form of resistance and anti–colonialist struggle. But most importantly, it was an act of love.
As a daughter of Korean immigrants, I was told that in order to “survive,” I must “fit in” and “assimilate” myself into American culture. My parents did this the day I was born by giving me an American name, and therefore, I was forced to position myself as American before I ever was Korean. For a part of my life, I felt that I lost agency to a critical part of my identity by having a prescribed American name.
For many immigrants and diasporas, this normalized expectation to assimilate and, to some extent, disregard our identities demonstrates the pervasive nature of how white supremacy and American (neo)imperialism can disrupt and erase cultural existence.
And we don’t talk enough about it.
We don’t talk enough about how America has taken something as sensitive and sacred as a name to reinforce its dominance—silencing communities of color and their stories of resilience to make their lives convenient for white people. We don’t talk enough about how the “American Dream” deceives and exploits immigrants into believing that adopting core “American values'' such as an “American name” is a guaranteed path to achieving acceptance. We don’t talk enough about how harmful and destructive it is for communities to be told that their identities must be sacrificed and simplified in order to truly belong.
America has standardized the spheres of comfort and convenience and how names and identities exist within those spheres. My Korean name is considered to be "unsuitable" and "not easy enough" for English speakers. The reality of adhering to these values by having an American name has been undeniably detrimental to my existence as a whole and the ways in which I navigate the world.
So, breaking away from this harmful narrative and finding space to heal has been through my name change in college. Because one thing this new journey I have embarked on has taught me is that reimagination is possible—reimagination led by love.
I changed my name as a way to center my identity and my Koreanness in love. I want to showcase the complexities of being a part of the Korean diaspora. I want to embrace my truth without feeling compelled to explain my truth. But most importantly, I want to love myself as Yeeun Yoo—because, truthfully, that is who I really am.
And it is as simple as that.