I remember my 7th birthday well. I spent most of the day in the air, flying across the endless, blue Pacific. My head was spinning, as it usually does while on long flights, but this time it was for a unique reason: we were moving from the Philippines to the United States. At the time, I didn’t quite understand the permanence of the move or what it would exactly entail. What I did feel, though, was buzzing excitement to be on the other side of the world. To be where my favorite TV shows were created and where the heftiness of the dollar couldn’t be understated.
I was excited to be moving to the center of the world.
The move made total sense. I was a narcissistic kid growing up, so I always believed I would be the one. I was convinced I’d be the greatest new inventor. Or the guy to make some revolutionary discovery while exploring space. Or the greatest artist to exist in the 21st century. Whatever it was, it seemed destined that the USA be my launching pad for greatness.
But greatness requires a great name. Sunghoon is a fine name, but have you heard of any famous people named Sunghoon? No way. I needed a name that was cool. A name that you could see on a book cover and wouldn’t make you put it back on the shelf immediately. I wanted a name that gave me confidence and one that didn’t make me feel like the odd one out.
The flight attendants stopped by my seat, hearing that it was my birthday, and handed me a cake while congratulating me on my 36-hour long birthday, not doing the greatest job hiding their pity for the boy who had to spend his 7th birthday in a tight air cabin. Not too concerned with my situation, I happily spooned the cake into my mouth.
In a final act of celebration, I gifted myself a new name. James.
Growing up, I couldn’t fully escape my real name because, according to every legal document and roster, Sunghoon is the one and only name that I possess. This came to haunt me in weird and specific ways.
In grade school, I absolutely hated having substitute teachers. Of course, there were the normal reasons for not liking them: having one usually meant getting a lot of meaningless busy work, and a lot of them were just unnecessarily rude (totally understandable, though, as their kids can be far worse). But I experienced something more dreadful. The roll call. It was the same every single time. The substitute would take the list and, one by one, call out each student’s name, pausing to hear “present” from a claimer of each title. This was pretty painless for most. Adam Johnson never had to worry about the pronunciation of his name. Neither did Sarah Schweitzer. But you could bet that Sunghoon Kwak was anxiously deliberating his plan of attack.
As the substitute moved down the list, they would effortlessly rattle off the names. “Timothy Harris… Rachel Ingrid… Paulina Jonas… Terrance Kingston…” Uh oh. Their eyes would furrow.
The class would erupt in laughter.
“Don’t you mean James?” a friend of mine would ask.
“Yeah,” I would nod, trying to seem unbothered. “Call me James.”
But the damage was done. I had associated James with the version of myself I wanted to be. And as for Sunghoon? As far as I was concerned, that name was to be forgotten, left in the dust with my other embarrassing traits.
My efforts to fit in and become a part of the whole mutated into an unhealthy need for external validation. My attitude changed from wanting greatness because of my internal motivators to craving acceptance from those around me.
I gave up the dream of studying computer science despite being in love with technology growing up because CS didn’t fit the mold of “cool” I had created for myself. I didn’t want to be a faceless Asian man in the crowd of millions. I kept my music taste a secret because alternative-rock was too weird and because I was scared that deviating from liking the newest hip-hop would relegate me to the bottom of the social totem pole. I detested slim-fit jeans when they were “too feminine” but turned around and wore them religiously when they were the new hot fashion trend.
Almost every decision was met with the same question: “What would others think of me?” I had embraced being a social chameleon.
And that chameleon was much better received when named James rather than Sunghoon.
But I’ve grown a lot in the last couple of years. From my time in India to my first year in college and everything in between. I’ve pushed myself and have been pushed around. Despite my shortcomings and failures, I had one constant thing to fall back to as the years whirled around me: myself. While my environments drastically changed, I learned to entertain myself. I learned to try the things I would have never dreamt of trying. I learned to love myself and discovered the true meaning of love without a contingency. An appreciation of myself no matter how the world saw me, trusting in unwavering allegiance to my values and morals.
As I’ve gained confidence and learned to love myself, I’ve had less of a need to be validated. I’m starting to shed the skin that changes color based on my environment, and, as a result, I’ve decided to shed my name as well.
James is a fine name, but greatness requires a great name, and Sunghoon is great because it’s my name.