Edmonton·First Person

After years of being Jennifer for others, I'm embracing my Korean name for me

Taking back her birth name means Yeon Soo Ha must sometimes deal with misspellings, mispronunciations or even just being overlooked. But it has also meant reclaiming her sense of self and deciding not to make decisions for the convenience of others.

My real name was chosen with love. My ‘convenient’ name was inspired by J-Lo

A Korean woman wearing glasses holds up a hand-printed sign with her name.
When Yeon Soo Ha arrived in Canada as a young girl in 2001, she began going by Jennifer. In 2021, Ha chose to go back to her Korean birth name. (Safi Khan)

This First Person column is written by Yeon Soo Ha, an accessibility specialist living in Edmonton. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I signed up to go ziplining on my most recent vacation in the mountains. I am a self-proclaimed city mouse, not someone who could be described as "outdoorsy." I felt nervous but was determined to have a good time.

One at a time, the guide hooked us onto the zipline, asked our name and wished us a fun time as we jumped onto the course. I told him my name and he paused for a second. "Oh, OK," he replied before pushing me over the treetops, sending me screaming my way to the other side. 

My guide did not know or intend it but his quick comment was one of the many stinging interactions I've endured over my name. 

A year ago, things would have gone differently. I would have told him my name was Jennifer and he would have said, "Great to meet you, Jennifer!" — as he had for all the other participants. 

A family at a restaurant table.
Six-year-old Ha, second from the right, sits with her mother Joo Hye Lee, left, maternal grandmother Jung Ja Choi and father Hee Gyu Ha in a restaurant at the Seoul–Incheon International Airport on Sept. 1, 2001, prior to boarding their flight for Vancouver. (Submitted by Yeon Soo Ha)

I was six in 2001 when my family immigrated to Surrey, B.C. from Seoul. As a part of settling into a new country, we adopted the common practice among many Korean immigrants of picking "English names." I became Jennifer. It was the year Jennifer Lopez was selling out both concerts and movie theatres and the name had stuck in my parents' heads. It was popular and easy for my parents to remember. It was convenient. 

Throughout my life, I introduced myself to countless people as Jennifer, many of whom had mothers, sisters, best friends or cousins who shared the name. Nobody mispronounced Jennifer. And nobody misspelled it, even at coffee shops. 

But as I got older, the convenience of being Jennifer became eclipsed by my doubts. I couldn't help wondering: Who was this convenience for? 

One summer day in 2021, I was going through my things on a mission to declutter. Tucked into a photo album was a booklet given to my parents by the hospital when I was born. It states that I was born in the afternoon, weighing 3.7 kilograms. It lists the hospital's address and the names of my parents and the doctor. 

The space labelled "baby's name" is blank. 

A birth record written in Korean with a baby photo and imprints of a baby feet.
Ha was going through an old photo album when she found this booklet containing details about her birth. The field for her name was left blank because her parents took her home to meet other relatives before naming her. (Submitted by Yeon Soo Ha)

My parents took me home from the hospital without a name, choosing to take some time with each set of grandparents before making this important decision. The name my family ultimately chose has a meaning behind each character — as most Korean names do: Yeon (연) meaning lotus, and Soo (수) meaning outstanding or exceptional. 

I was named after a flower that blooms even in mud. 

With this artifact showing the care and consideration that my entire family put toward Yeon Soo, I realized that it — and not Jennifer — was my one, true name. 

That fall, I started a new job in accessibility and inclusion. The blank slate of a new career felt like a sign to take back my birth name. I slowly started sharing the idea with friends and family, all of whom were incredibly supportive. Many asked — sometimes more than once — how to correctly pronounce it and then made an effort to use it. These gestures meant a lot to me. 

Understandably, sometimes people made mistakes and I had to correct them. Those moments felt awkward but going by a name that did not feel true to me felt worse. 

The process of adopting a name that's new to others but not to me has required me to be patient, vulnerable and uncomfortable. Since making the change, I've had to constantly reflect on my values and prioritize my sense of self over the convenience of others.

In my work, I support individuals and organizations in creating more accessible spaces. I consider different barriers and provide recommendations on how to remove them. One of the simplest things I suggest is meaningful introductions, where participants share their name and pronouns. 

Colourful sticky notes on a board
As an undergraduate student at the University of Alberta’s Augustana Campus, Ha — then going by Jennifer — initiated a project, which ran for several years, where participants shared their name and the meaning behind it. (Submitted by Yeon Soo Ha)

There are many reasons someone might choose to go by a new name at any point in their lives. All of them deserve consideration and respect. 

Being Yeon Soo means I get to live out the values I encourage professionally in a personally meaningful way. 

Being Yeon Soo also means explaining my name in my email signature ("Please note that my first name is "Yeon Soo" — both words). It means my name is misspelled and mispronounced by medical professionals, colleagues, acquaintances, even friends. It means having to be gracious and patient when people hesitate to say my name upon meeting me at a virtual work mixer or a birthday party. It means I don't get a send-off from my zipline instructor. It means feeling inconvenient, weird or too difficult for others on a small but constant basis. 

Ultimately, though, being Yeon Soo means reclaiming my sense of self. It means deciding every day to not live for others' convenience. 

But from time to time, I still take advantage of the convenience of being Jennifer.

Like when I'm putting in my order at a coffee shop. 


Do you have a similar experience to this First Person column? We want to hear from you. Write to us at firstperson@cbc.ca

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

하연수 / Yeon Soo Ha

Freelance contributor

하연수 / Yeon Soo Ha was born in Seoul and lives in amiskwaciwâskahikan/Edmonton. She works in higher education, plays in her community garden and eats noodles for as many meals as possible.

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