For my name’s sake

Berkeley Got Back

Nicole Kim Mug

As a Korean American, I am always faced with a perhaps trivial decision: Should I go by Dohee Kim or Nicole Kim?

I spent most, or arguably all, of my life here in the United States. After just a little more than two years, I left South Korea as an incomprehensible, babbling baby on the way to New York. Once I landed, I still retained my Korean name legally, but I assumed another identity: “Nicole.”

I failed to realize that my name “Dohee” — or names in general — held power. My Korean heritage, my parents’ immigrant story and my family’s culture and values are preserved through Dohee, while my assimilation as a Korean American and as a U.S. citizen is facilitated through “Nicole.”

My name symbolizes the past that created me, the result who lives in the present and the future inevitably shaped by what I do daily. And sometimes, the duality of being Korean and American is confusing, ambiguous and consequently hard to navigate. Preserving and valuing my past while constantly recreating myself as an American is a tough balancing act.

At times, I prefer “Nicole” when I want to feel included, whether in the classroom, supermarket, Starbucks line or in any social situation. I want to assert that I, too, am an American at every available opportunity. On my Cal ID, I am under “Nicole,” on the class roster I am Nicole, and even on my bus clipper card I go by “Nicole.” Most fail to pronounce “Dohee” correctly, anyway.

I simultaneously and unconsciously repress foreign behavior or excessive Korean identification for social capital and other advantages. American society puts me in the box of “model minority,” so I consciously avoid stereotypes that include having tiger parents, aiming to become a doctor, excessively caring about grades or material goods, having small, “chinky” eyes, trying too hard or trying to become the teacher’s pet, being the genius STEM whiz and more. Efforts to undermine these generalizations and “create me for me” have been my entire life, and UC Berkeley is no exception. I feel the need to distinguish myself from every other Asian on campus.

This need to prioritize the West over the East, repress a part of my identity to avoid being typecast and generalized and hyper-Americanize myself to gain acceptance in institutions such as UC Berkeley — despite the fact that the United States has been my home for as long as I remember — are not unique to me.

Since the 1960s, Asian students constituted a notable amount of student demography, their admission rising even more in the ‘70s. In the freshman class of 1991, Asian students outnumbered white students for the first time in the school’s history. Now, about forty percent of undergraduate students here identify as of Asian ethnicity.

Yet, even at a campus with an Asian majority, these stereotypes still exist and fester and constrain us. “Nicole” granted me a means of escape, and at some point, I shamelessly resorted to it. Call it surviving or avoiding conflict of identities, but I have selectively decided when to assert my American or Korean identity (more often the first than the latter). I am the 1.5 generation, the Korean American, the neither of two cultures, two lands and two identities. Either I am too foreign or not foreign enough.

I recognize the advantages of being able to access two vastly different arenas. As a Korean American, I am able to widen my space of analysis and recognize existing intersectional ties. I have the privilege to pick and choose as well as accept or reject aspects of both cultures to represent something new.

Nothing scares me more than forgetting myself. Though “Dohee” is my legal name, it is also my family name, my history and who I am. At The Daily Californian, I chose Dohee Kim as a reminder for myself to fearlessly own my identity on a platform under close scrutiny. At least, I thought, I could stand by my words.

I thought that if I am writing to express my opinion, I might as well write as someone who is first honest about herself.

Dohee Kim writes the Friday column on UC Berkeley’s past and present. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dohee_nicole ‏.