Maybe I'm in the minority, but I don't think we'd feel the same about roses if they were called "grumkenpickles." Names matter, and for most of my life, mine felt wrong.
My birth parents in Korea named me Suyong Lee. But when I was adopted at age three by my aunt and uncle, they changed it. My aunt had just married an American airman and wanted to start a family. She couldn't have children of her own, but since my parents already had three daughters and another on the way, they had one to spare, and they spared me.
I was to have a new, Western, name because my aunt-turned-mother thought it would help us integrate better in American culture. She changed hers to Loreen and asked me to pick mine. With my limited English, I'm pretty sure I suggested "Ketchup," so they went with Kathy instead. My new last name was Bryant, like my new dad's. So I became Kathy Bryant, a name I later associated with suburban moms in sweatpants and hair rollers or Cathy from the comic strip, and one with no connection to my heritage.
I started thinking about other names when I was around ten. My name idol was Jo from Facts of Life. She had jet-black hair like mine, she never took no for an answer, and best of all she had a boy's name, which Blew. My. Mind. For a while, I was also obsessed with being "Tony" or "Charlie."
I started thinking about other names when I was around ten.
Home life was a bitch. I had to reckon with my mother's anger on a near-daily basis, subject to her arbitrary rules and punishments. She would stand at the door counting down the seconds when I was coming home from school. If I missed the cutoff, I'd be grounded for a week. Tiger-mom syndrome this was not. Her strictness wasn't about discipline; it was about control. My father would yell at us that we were both driving him crazy and storm out of the house. I prayed for escape, too, but we literally lived on an island — we were stationed in Okinawa, Japan, where there wasn't anywhere for a teenage girl to run to.
When I got to college in Indiana, I was grateful for the ocean between us. For the first time, I was free to do anything, be anyone. I began the work of figuring out who I was and what her name would be. I scrawled potential names into my journal — characters from stories and movies, people I'd met who seemed especially happy and carefree. There was Salinger's Esmé (with love and squalor), Sloane from Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and friends of friends named Celeste, Olivia, Eva. I leaned toward names made of calm, feminine sounds that never sounded like someone was yelling at you. The harsh K in Kathy conjured up my mother's words for me: kigibe, keoji, shikkeuro. Korean for girl, beggar, and shut up. But I still wasn't ready. I switched from Kathy to "Kate," which felt like a small step, but not one nearly big enough.
After college I moved to New York, where I met people with cool names like Zoë, Genevieve, and Annemieke. I kept looking. Then, after almost ten years in advertising, I finally started writing my own screenplays and short stories. I didn't want to create art that had "Kate Bryant" on it. I wanted a name that represented the real me, to go with my real work. Yet even after all those years of wanting to change my name, timidity intervened. For another five years. Changing my name felt self-indulgent, in the same way that calling myself an artist did.
Changing my name felt self-indulgent, in the same way that calling myself an artist did.
Then, David Bowie died. I read that he'd changed his name for professional reasons — there was already a singer named David Jones. It was a revelation. Finally, I felt permission to change my name, since there's already a published author with my name. I could make a business card for it. People would get it, my thinking went, because, essentially, I was "rebranding" myself.
Once the universe gave me the OK, a little space seemed to open up for the name to find me. And so it was that Héloïse fluttered into my head one day, devastatingly perfect. I'm not sure exactly where it came from. Perhaps some derivation of Luisita (a friend) or Elio (a boy I used to babysit). I guess I have a thing for L names. I honed it, trying it with and without the H and with and without the diacritics. I didn't want them to be an affectation. Is it gauche to use French spelling if you don't even speak French? Eff it, I went with the French.
For my last name, I wanted to reclaim my Korean-ness, so I researched family names. I hate how lineage is paternal and opted to take my birth mother's last name, Chung. I know it's passed down from her father, but still, it brought me a little closer to her.
I searched Google, Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn to see whose company I would be in. Aside from Héloïse d'Argenteuil, the lover nun, the only other two big results were Hint-full Heloise, the advice columnist, and Héloïse Chong, a Canadian yogi. There was no Héloïse Chung of note. Not only had I found a name I liked, I'd found something unique and truly mine. I immediately snatched up the Gmail address and URL.
The next day, I sent a mass email and updated all my social-media profiles, even Nike Plus, where I have exactly three connections. I compulsively refreshed my feed, wondering if my friends would think it was weird. Would they even respond? They did: Congratulations! You finally did it! So brave of you. Several shared their own name stories. Shannon had always wanted to be called Charlie. Steph felt she'd missed out by forgoing Stevie (do it, you guys!). Most everyone was excited for me. A few fell disappointingly silent, but overall I felt triumphant. I had done a scary thing, and it had turned out OK.
I had done a scary thing, and it had turned out OK.
My adoptive father must have seen it on LinkedIn, our one social-media crossover. He texted to ask, who is this? Had I changed my name, and why? I told him yes, because the other names had always felt wrong. He wrote back to say he didn't understand, but "OK." It's not exactly fiery affirmation, but it's more than he'd said when I changed Kathy to Kate.
I told my Korean family last, just my two biological younger sisters, who I chat with semi-regularly on KakaoTalk. They asked what it meant. "Healthy," I told them, because that's what it says on the baby-naming sites. Good, they said, but why that name? Because I liked the way it sounds. And then we'd reached the limits of their English and my Korean, with no opportunity for more nuanced conversation.
Meanwhile, the documentation keeps trickling in. A new driver's license, Social Security card, debit card, checks. Each item feels like a gift; more proof validating who I am. At last. I found my name.
Héloïse Chung is a writer and creative director living in Brooklyn. Her new website heloisechung.com will be launching soon, because of course.