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Remembering I'm Asian

A couple weeks ago, Benjamin Dinovelli wrote a column titled “Forgetting I’m Asian.” In it, he describes his struggles with the notion of cultural identity as an ethnically Asian student raised by white parents. My situation is not perfectly synonymous to his, but I can relate to his experiences of trying to reconcile a name with a sense of personal and cultural identity. However, my experience is not one of forgetting my ethnic heritage, but rather one of remembering it.

My full name is Laura Jiyoon Kim. Having attended international schools since preschool, it may have been prudent to have gone by my more Western and pronounceable first name. However, throughout my entire life, I have only ever been called Jiyoon by teachers, family and friends.


I don’t recall exactly when I first learned about my official first name. I do know that it wasn’t until several years had passed since I learned to introduce myself as Jiyoon. As a child, I resented my unfamiliar name. I couldn't fathom why my parents had given me a name my own mother couldn’t pronounce. In Korean, there is no distinction between the letters 'l' and 'r'; “Laura” includes both and so gets muddled when uttered in a Korean accent. I eventually learned that my parents had asked a close family friend to give me my “American name.” I came to terms with it but decided that “Laura” just wasn’t a name I felt represented how I identify my heritage and myself.

Jiyoon is the name I grew up with. Jiyoon is the name my parents meticulously picked because of its relative simplicity in Korean, Japanese and even English spellings and pronunciations. Jiyoon is the name that lets the world know that I’m Korean, even when my passport is issued by the United States and Japan is where I consider home.

However, as I prepared to leave for college, my conviction to embrace the inconveniences that inevitably come with having an Asian name in a Western academic environment was shaken. Was I prepared to repeat myself over and over whenever I introduced myself throughout the awkward transitional phase when every freshman is trying to learn everyone else’s name? I’d already experienced the mildly horrifying embarrassment of watching a professor struggle to pronounce my name in front of a lecture hall of exasperated students during a summer academic program. I almost thought I would fit in better if I had an American name, instead of one that printed the label “international student” across my forehead. I was even concerned with factors that had little to do the Asian nature of my preferred name and more to do with simple logistical issues. Laura being my official first name, I knew that class rosters, official documents and even the cheesy sign that I was sure I would find on my dorm room door would say “Laura.” My Princeton netID was already set as “ljkim.”

Fortunately, since the beginning of this fall semester, Princeton has implemented a system that allows students to indicate a preferred first name on SCORE. I was spared the burden of having to decide between a sense of identity and convenience. It was already late August when the email announcement for this new system was sent out, and I hadn’t yet made a decision. I copped out, letting a system make the choice I couldn’t quite make for myself.

The “American name” is a phenomenon I’ve become increasingly sensitive to in my first few months at a college in the States. Unlike me, there are many Asian students on campus who prefer to be called by an American name. At one of the initial Korean American Student Association gatherings, I was overwhelmed by the challenge of having to learn both American and Korean names. I have friends who have actually chosen their adopted American name as their preferred name on SCORE.

For some, an American name is a true preference or what they’ve always gone by. But for others, it’s merely a choice of convenience. In some extreme cases, students pick an American name they like in preparation for an extended period of time at an American academic institution, as though it’s the last item on a checklist of things to pack before hopping on an international flight to college.


I’m not speaking to those who have never gone by, or don’t even possess, an Asian name, or to those who genuinely prefer their American name. But I would like to urge those who have adopted an American name merely for the sake of convenience to consider taking the extra energy and time to introduce themselves by the name they prefer. A name holds power. It is a fundamental form of personal identification. Those who care and who matter will take the time to learn the name you believe most accurately represents yourself. I, for one, have learned how exactly to explain my name so that others can learn it with relative ease—it’s like June, but with an ‘ee’ sound in the middle.

Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at

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