When she picked my name, my mother did something amazing. She managed to pick one of the few English names that could be easily translated into a Korean name. She wasn’t thinking about Korea when she did it. I know this because she found my name in a romance novel called Amanda Miranda. I read it when I was in high school. It was decidedly not Korean.
The interesting thing about my name is that by simply removing the ‘da’, it becomes the Korean name, 미란(美蘭) which means ‘beautiful orchid’. The problem with 미란 is that while her name seems pretty, she herself is a bit of a hot mess. This is the story of 미란 (Miran), how I got to know and hate her, and eventually embrace her.
In 2009, Steve and I took what we thought would be about a three-year break from the world. We moved out to South Korea in hopes of finding some adventure and perspective. We did all the cliché stuff. We ate all the spicy food. We made friends, traveled, and took a billion pictures.
Then, in 2014, I started Korean classes at a local language center. This is where the story of 미란 begins. See, up until the language school, I’d really had little reason to have a Korean name. My job was teaching English, my Korean friends all spoke English, and the store clerks didn’t need to know my name. But in the language school, I realized that now that I was going to be speaking Korean all the time, it’d be better to get rid of Miranda because Koreans couldn’t really pronounce it correctly.
Initially, 미란 seemed fun. I thought she’d be able to blend in and live a normal Korean life. Maybe sip coffee downtown with her Korean friends and chat about the day’s news. Or go to the bank without having a little panic attack. Maybe wow people with her knowledge of Korean politics and history. It was naive, but at the time, I really felt like I alone was in control of my self-identity.
Being over-confident and generally dumb, I threw myself into this charade, positive that with enough work I could fully become 미란. It worked to some extent in the classroom. But out in the real world, no one was having any of it. People laughed when I spoke Korean. They called my accent cute. They gawked at me out in the streets. It turned out that my decision that I could be just as Korean as the next guy was absolutely wrong and everyone knew it.
One major problem in my transition was my physical body. I’m very Caucasian and humans have evolved to rely heavily on our eyesight. When we see something is one way, even if our other senses suggest that it is actually another way, it will be hard to give up our first impression. This is not my experience alone, this is science.
Morrot, Brochet, and Dubourdieu (2001) did an experiment involving wine that clearly proves this. The researchers rounded up some wine tasters and gave them some wines to taste. Some of the wines had been treated with dyes. What the researchers found was that professional wine tasters falsely described wines when their colors were changed. In other words, they’d use the vocabulary reserved for red wines while drinking a white wine that had been dyed red.
The take away should be that if a guy whose job is telling people what wine tastes like can’t do it unless he knows what color it is, then we can’t help but judge people by what they look like. Meaning that, even though I spoke decent Korean, people were still going to see me as a foreigner, and therefore treat me as such.
But I was determined to make them see me for who I wanted to be. My year in the language center finished and I got ready to start my master’s degree. My first hint that 미란 might have trouble fitting in came during my interview for my program. After a few awkward questions, one of the professors began to speak to me in English. He asked me about America. He asked me about the origins of my last name. He did not bother asking me anything about teaching techniques. I finished the interview miserable and sure that I was not going to get into the program.
But I did make it and 미란 finally got her chance to take the world of Korean Language Education by storm. There was only one problem; it turned out she was stupid. She read at a third the speed of her co-students. She wrote pathetic papers with multiple grammatical errors. She gave presentations in halting, accented Korean. I knew 미란 was doing a bad job, and more importantly, so did all of my co-students and professors. One time, while I was presenting, my professor of linguistic analysis told the other students to record my presentation and do analysis on my speaking errors. And they did it.
After I finished all of my courses and was working on my thesis, I took a job at a fruit exporter for a few months. They decided that if I answered the phone in my accented Korean, people would realize that they had hired an American, and it would make them appear more global. What actually happened was that I had to ask everyone to repeat themselves a thousand times and often gave confusing explanations.
A rumor apparently spread around the farms that they had hired a person with some sort of disability in the main office. My boss thought it was hilarious and told me. And that was the moment that I realized that actually 미란 did have a disability. She was a second language speaker. Trying to turn her into a super genius was going to be fruitless and painful.
It’s funny that it took that experience to explain the limitations of my second language identity to me. My thesis had actually been on the topic of second language identity development. I’d spent hours reading about how no matter what a person wants their identity to be, they will always run into social and personal restrictions, (Norton, 2001). I realized that no matter how great my plans were for 미란, unless I accepted her limitations I was always going to be disappointed.
So, I quit the fruit exporter and began looking for a job that would allow me to use both 미란 and Miranda on a daily basis. Give them a chance to work in tandem. I ended up back at an English language school. And that’s where I finally found a balance between who I wanted to be, who I was capable of being, and who Korean society would allow me to be.
Now, I go by both names without putting much thought into what the people think. I counsel parents who come to the institute in accented Korean. They don’t seem especially phased by the fact that I can speak Korean or that sometimes I have to take a second to find the proper word for something. I use both languages in the classroom. Sometimes my younger students are confused and think I am Korean. (Strange, I know, but true.) They generally treat me the same as their Korean teachers because on occasion I talk to their moms. I think the important thing is, these days I’ve finally accepted poor, slow, sometimes awkward 미란 as what she is, a part of me. She does her best and serves a valuable purpose, but she’s not my whole self.
This clash between names and selves is actually the basis of why I used two names for Amia in the Moxy Byrd story. Because all of us have various names we go by, and various sections of our lives are all tangled up to make our self-identity. It’s a theme that really resonates with me, I think especially because I have a series of very clear breaking points where I had to become someone new to survive.
On top of that, I wanted to help people understand that while they may be dealing with 미란 that doesn’t mean that she’s all that I’ve got going on. There’s more to most of us than we show. But especially in the case of immigrants, there’s a huge chasm between what they could do in their home country, and what they can do now in their new home. That immigrant you talk to on the phone today may be a neuro-scientist in their native language. Heck, they may speak five different languages. It’s important not to get too caught up in initial perceptions, because they may be extremely wrong.
As for those of us who live between two selves, the best we can do is make both of those selves the best they can be. But also, we need to accept that we cannot be the same in both of our realities. 미란 is never going to be a famous author. Well, I doubt it. But her existence very much impacts my writing. And that’s what we have to settle for, right? Increasingly better. At least that’s what I like to tell myself.
Morrot,G., Brochet, B. Dubourdieu, D, (2001). The Color of Odors. Brain and Language. 2001 Nov; 79(2)
Norton, B. (2001). Non-participation, imagined communities, and the language classroom. In M. Breen(Ed.), Learner contributions to language learning: New directions in research (pp 159-171). Harlow, England: Pearson Education.
Love it and though I don’t relate the same way you do, I completely do in other ways and see how important each aspect of “me” is! Love ya! Thanks for sharing!
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Everyone deals with the development of their self identity differently for sure. Thanks for reading!
What a great explanation of what an immigrant has to go through when learning a new language as an adult. It is such a great way to help us understand the frustration someone may be experiencing just to explain the simplest thing in a second language.
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Frustrating is a good word for it. But it does keep you on your feet!
Great nice, post
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This is beautifully written. My young students also called me Korean after I spoke to them in in their native tongue which was confusing but also cute. As for the fruit exporter, I’m really amazed by the thick skin you developed in the face of what feels a bit cruel. I really admire your honesty and wish you the best on your continued success in Korea.