This First Person column is written by Yeon Soo Ha, an accessibility specialist living in Edmonton. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
I signed up to go ziplining on my most recent vacation in the mountains. I am a self-proclaimed city mouse, not someone who could be described as “outdoorsy.” I felt nervous but was determined to have a good time.
One at a time, the guide hooked us onto the zipline, asked our name and wished us a fun time as we jumped onto the course. I told him my name and he paused for a second. “Oh, OK,” he replied before pushing me over the treetops, sending me screaming my way to the other side.
My guide did not know or intend it but his quick comment was one of the many stinging interactions I’ve endured over my name.
A year ago, things would have gone differently. I would have told him my name was Jennifer and he would have said, “Great to meet you, Jennifer!” — as he had for all the other participants.
I was six in 2001 when my family immigrated to Surrey, B.C. from Seoul. As a part of settling into a new country, we adopted the common practice among many Korean immigrants of picking “English names.” I became Jennifer. It was the year Jennifer Lopez was selling out both concerts and movie theatres and the name had stuck in my parents’ heads. It was popular and easy for my parents to remember. It was convenient.
Throughout my life, I introduced myself to countless people as Jennifer, many of whom had mothers, sisters, best friends or cousins who shared the name. Nobody mispronounced Jennifer. And nobody misspelled it, even at coffee shops.
But as I got older, the convenience of being Jennifer became eclipsed by my doubts. I couldn’t help wondering: Who was this convenience for?
One summer day in 2021, I was going through my things on a mission to declutter. Tucked into a photo album was a booklet given to my parents by the hospital when I was born. It states that I was born in the afternoon, weighing 3.7 kilograms. It lists the hospital’s address and the names of my parents and the doctor.
The space labelled “baby’s name” is blank.
My parents took me home from the hospital without a name, choosing to take some time with each set of grandparents before making this important decision. The name my family ultimately chose has a meaning behind each character — as most Korean names do: Yeon (연) meaning lotus, and Soo (수) meaning outstanding or exceptional.
I was named after a flower that blooms even in mud.
With this artifact showing the care and consideration that my entire family put toward Yeon Soo, I realized that it — and not Jennifer — was my one, true name.
That fall, I started a new job in accessibility and inclusion. The blank slate of a new career felt like a sign to take back my birth name. I slowly started sharing the idea with friends and family, all of whom were incredibly supportive. Many asked — sometimes more than once — how to correctly pronounce it and then made an effort to use it. These gestures meant a lot to me.
Understandably, sometimes people made mistakes and I had to correct them. Those moments felt awkward but going by a name that did not feel true to me felt worse.
The process of adopting a name that’s new to others but not to me has required me to be patient, vulnerable and uncomfortable. Since making the change, I’ve had to constantly reflect on my values and prioritize my sense of self over the convenience of others.
In my work, I support individuals and organizations in creating more accessible spaces. I consider different barriers and provide recommendations on how to remove them. One of the simplest things I suggest is meaningful introductions, where participants share their name and pronouns.
There are many reasons someone might choose to go by a new name at any point in their lives. All of them deserve consideration and respect.
Being Yeon Soo means I get to live out the values I encourage professionally in a personally meaningful way.
Being Yeon Soo also means explaining my name in my email signature (“Please note that my first name is “Yeon Soo” — both words). It means my name is misspelled and mispronounced by medical professionals, colleagues, acquaintances, even friends. It means having to be gracious and patient when people hesitate to say my name upon meeting me at a virtual work mixer or a birthday party. It means I don’t get a send-off from my zipline instructor. It means feeling inconvenient, weird or too difficult for others on a small but constant basis.
Ultimately, though, being Yeon Soo means reclaiming my sense of self. It means deciding every day to not live for others’ convenience.
But from time to time, I still take advantage of the convenience of being Jennifer.
Like when I’m putting in my order at a coffee shop.
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