The Doc Project

At 11, I left Korea with one name. I arrived in Canada with another

Jennifer Yoon was Yae Gi Yoon when she got on the plane. That all changed when she watched Friends during the flight.

Jennifer Yoon was Yae Gi Yoon when she got on the plane. That all changed when she watched a sitcom in flight

Jennifer Yoon in Vancouver, 2005. (Submitted by Jennifer Yoon)

This story was first published in December 2018.

Our names are often given to us. Mine, however, was chosen... by me, on a whim and on a plane. 

It was chosen by my 11-year-old self, about 9,000 metres in the air, staring wide-eyed at an episode of Friends on the long plane ride over.

My family and I were flying from Incheon, South Korea to Vancouver, Canada. We were immigrating — beginning a new life in a new world. 

Jennifer Yoon (in the pink jacket) and her family at the airport, before boarding their flight to Canada in 2004. (Submitted by Jennifer Yoon)

As part of assimilating into Canadian culture, my mother explained that we should pick English names. She suggested I take on an Old Testament, Christian name she was fond of, like Esther, Ruth or Sharon.

Those didn't feel like my style. Instead, I went with something that felt more modern, more me. I chose to go with Jennifer, inspired by Jennifer Aniston in Friends, having fallen in love with her most excellent hairdo.

This Happened to Me is a new video series from CBC Radio that explores turning points in our lives. In this episode, Jennifer Yoon remembers how she picked her English name during the plane ride to Vancouver, and why her name is a connection to her roots in South Korea. 5:49

But now, 14 years after immigrating to Canada, I've realized that the name 'Jennifer' — chosen on a whim as a child — has become more significant in my everyday life than the name my parents gave me, the name on all my official documentation: Yae Gi.

In fact, having these two names has often felt like a burden, laden with bureaucratic hurdles and mispronunciations. It's to the point where I can't help but wonder if I should change my name legally, from Yae Gi to Jennifer.

But now I ask myself: If I change my name, will I be losing something?

Jennifer is pictured with her parents and grandparents in 2005 wearing Hanbok, traditional Korean dress. (Submitted by Jennifer Yoon)

New country, new me

Watching Jennifer Aniston for the first time in an episode of Friends, it was love at first sight.

She was beautiful and blonde — a breath of fresh air. It was like she was representing this new world that I would soon discover once I stepped off the plane.

And as I saw her, lounging on the couch on screen, I decided that I wanted to be just like her — name and all. 

"Watching Jennifer Aniston for the first time in an episode of Friends, it was love at first sight," Yoon said, vowing to model herself, name and all, after the actress. (Getty Images/Warner Bros. Television)

My mother, born Soon-Whan, chose her immigrant name, Sharon, from the Bible.

But my father, Jung Sik, drew inspiration from Hollywood when he chose his first name: Arnold.

It was the '90s, and he was working as an engineer in a Korean company. He and his buddies were playing pool and talking about Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movie. Since they were huge fans, they decided to split Arnold Schwarzenegger's name three ways. My dad would be Arnold, his buddy would be Schwarz, and his other friend would be... Zenegger. 

Like many other immigrants, the Yoon family, pictured above in 2003 visiting Vancouver, chose to adopt Western names when they came over to Canada. (Submitted by Jennifer Yoon)

But after living the first few years in Canada as Arnold, my dad gave up that name because it was too difficult for him to pronounce. He now goes by John.

My father's Canadian name, John, is representative of many of the things he lost in order to start a new life in Canada.

"Having a simple and easy name is a courtesy to other people," he told me.

"When [I] introduce myself, they can understand me, and recognize me, and memorize my name easily."

What's in a name? 

But there's a loss in having changed names so many times, according to my dad.

He says his Korean name — the name he answered to for more than half of his life — is lost, living only in his memories. 

His name is representative of the many things he lost in order to start a new life in Canada.

More than a decade after choosing our English names, each family member — from left, Jung-Sik/John, Soon-Whan/Sharon, and Yae-Gi/Jennifer — has a unique relationship with their names and their identities. (Submitted by Jennifer Yoon)

In Korea, my mother worked as a special education teacher and my father worked as an engineer. In Canada, however, they were never able to work in those fields again. They sometimes still struggle to find a sense of community, and miss their families back in Korea.

Despite this, they say it's all worth it because they feel they gave their only child, me, a better life here in Canada.

Changing my name legally from Yae Gi to Jennifer feels like I would be letting go of a part of Korea — forgetting my parents' sacrifice as immigrants, and neglecting to honour where we come from.

Jennifer Yoon in Vancouver, 2005. (Submitted by Jennifer Yoon)

So many immigrants have two names because we inhabit two places at the same time; I belong to both Canada and Korea, and my two names are gifts from each world.

Through conversations with my parents, and weighing what my names mean to me and my identity, I've landed on a decision.

I'm going to keep both my names: Jennifer, and Yae Gi — and I feel all the richer for it. 

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the Listen link at the top of this page. 

About the Producer

Jennifer Yoon has never met a cat she didn't like. When she's not fostering cats, she's working at CBC Montreal researching for programs like Daybreak and Homerun. You may also find her on the streets of Montreal, listening for touching, charming, and fascinating stories. This is her first documentary. You can follow her on Twitter @jenngyoon

This documentary was edited by Alison Cook, and made through the Doc Project Mentorship Program.


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