[Northwestern] Taking ownership of my Korean American name

March 6, 2015
(Courtesy of The Daily Northwestern)

(Courtesy of The Daily Northwestern)


My last name, Johnson, is not indicative of my ethnicity, my “roots” or my identity. What it does tell, however, is a story that I think is worth adding to a necessary and ongoing discussion about identity, names and feelings of belonging.

I am a second-generation Korean American. I am 100 percent Korean, at least in terms of my ethnicity. So why is my last name Johnson? It’s a fair question that often comes from confused people who interact with me.

In the 1970s, my paternal grandfather immigrated to the United States and realized his Korean last name, written as Choi — this spelling differentiates it from a phonetically similar but very different Korean last name, Chae — was a problem. It was the source of ridicule from those who didn’t know or care how to pronounce it. He wanted “absolute” assimilation, and legally changed his last name and my father’s last name to one of the most common last names in the phone book: Johnson.