This First Person article is the experience of Priscilla Hwang, a reporter for CBC Ottawa who is reclaiming her Korean name, Ki Sun. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
For most of my life, I’ve been ashamed of my name.
Not my anglicized name, which is what my colleagues and friends have always called me, even though it doesn’t appear on my driver’s licence or my passport.
My legal name. My Korean name. My real name — the one my grandfather gave to me at birth.
In English, it’s spelled out Hwang Ki Sun, or Ki Sun Hwang if you switch my surname around, which is the structure in many Asian cultures where the family name comes first. It’s pronounded “Gkee Suhn” — the first name is like a mix between “Guy” (the French name) and “key.”
It means to shine brightly with kindness on this earth, always.
Ironically, for most of my life, my name was something I wanted to hide.
I remember dreading the first day of school, when I’d have to explain to my new teachers that I had an “English name” that they could call me by, “please and thanks.”
It was the worst when I had a substitute teacher.
“Kee? Kye? Kai … soon?” My classmates would giggle, looking around frantically for the mystery peer they never knew they had.
Mortified, I’d raise my hand and correct them right away.
“You can call me Priscilla.”
Where did Priscilla even come from?
Growing up, I remember asking my parents why they gave me the name Priscilla when I already had a Korean name.
My mom told me when we immigrated to Canada (I was three), someone suggested calling me Priscilla, like the woman in the Bible. (More commonly known here as Elvis Presley’s wife, I quickly learned.)
“When you were about to start school, people said you needed an English name. So I asked a pastor for help, to give you a good, faith-based name,” my mom, Joung Suk Hwang, told me over the phone in Korean when I called her about writing this piece.
“I thought we had to give you an English name at the time. Looking back now, we didn’t really have to do that,” she said.
“And if you say ‘Ki Sun’ to someone here, they find it difficult to pronounce.”
It broke my heart a little to tell my mom I was relieved to be called Priscilla and had grown up ashamed of my Korean name.
It’s not the first time she’d heard that I was embarrassed of being Korean.
There were times when I came home crying and angry because my mom packed me 김밥 (gimbap) for lunch, best described as a Korean sushi roll. My classmates had made fun of me and I ended up eating it during recess, tears streaming down my face, with my teacher.
“I was never [embarrassed of your name],” my mom responded. “Because the name Ki Sun signifies our nationality … Pride. We’re Canadian, but we’re also Korean Canadian.”
WATCH | My choice to reclaim my Korean name:
My time in the North
The first time I really confronted my complicated feelings for my name was while living in Yellowknife.
I reported on several people’s journeys to reclaim their traditional Indigenous names.
“Our ancestors, they were born like that — so why can’t we be born with those names?” Denenize Basil told me in 2018. He had changed his first name legally from Jacob a few years earlier.
“It’s our birthright,” he said. “In ways, it helped me find myself.”
“[Pingo] wasn’t our grandparents [or] … our great-grandparents name. It was just something the government put on to our people,” Anna Pingo told me, after finding out her surname was supposed to be Pingersugerook or Pingasugruk, the spelling she believes is closest to the Inuvialuktun alphabet.
“I want to wake [my culture] up and to say this is who we are.”
After work, my mind wandered. I started reflecting on my name for the first time.
Why do I want to hide it so much? Am I not proud of my language or culture? Why do I want to conform to the “Canadian norm”? How did I become this way?
The people I met in the North are fighting to reclaim their traditional names; meanwhile, up until that point I had seriously contemplated changing mine legally to my anglicized name. I started to think about why and what my name meant to me.
My name is beautiful
Growing up Korean Canadian, I hate that I was made to feel less, or different, because of my skin colour, food, culture, mannerisms and first language. The racist incidents and microaggressions conditioned me to hide the only “Asian” part of me that I could: my name.
To me, Ki Sun symbolized just how different I was from everyone else. Priscilla, on the other hand, was a little more accepted here, I told myself.
But those were all lies.
“I don’t think it’s really important, what name you go by. Because it’s you. You. Ki Sun and Priscilla, it’s you,” said my mom, laughing, at the end of our conversation.
It’s not easy to turn on a switch and erase decades of baggage attached to my name.
But thanks to those who showed me the power in reclaiming one’s identity and culture, I’m growing more and more courageous to also identify as Ki Sun.
It started small and it’s still a process and daily choice: I added my name to my personal social media accounts last year.
I am trying not to correct those, such as the bank teller and CRA agent, who call me by my legal name.
I’m sharing my name and story with more people in my life. Today, I am adding it to my byline.
My name is beautiful. Both my names are, actually.
Together they represent my journey as a Korean Canadian, grappling with her identity.
It took 30 years but I can finally say I’m proud to be 황기선.
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