The question always starts the same way, “How do you pronounce your last name?”
I can’t say that I blame anyone for asking. I see them sounding it out in their heads when they see my name, wondering what culture and country “Doong” comes from.
I always give the same answer, “I say ‘Doon’, like a sand dune.”
The response is always the same, “Oh? But the ‘g’-”
“Yeah just kill the ‘g’.”
“Ok, Simon Doong, what kind of a last name is that?”
I respond, “My dad’s side of the family is Chinese.” But even though that statement is true, it doesn’t always tell my whole story. I am not just my appearance or my last name. My identity incorporates all parts of me, both the seen and the unseen.
My dad’s family is Chinese and my mom’s side is white. All three of us were born in the US. My last name can have a silent ‘g’ or more of an “-oong” sound to it. “Doong” also isn’t really a Chinese last name. It likely was my great-grandfather’s first name on his US immigration papers. But the official who reviewed them simply looked at what was written and assigned whatever word looked like a last name. And thus, the Doong family was born.
My name and my Chinese heritage are not something I chose, but they are a part of me. However, certain experiences influenced how I felt about my last name, such as being called “Simon Ding-Dong” or “Simon Donnngg” accompanied by a slant-eyed facial expression. If my name wasn’t stereotyped, my appearance or my success were. These attempts to isolate and to “other” me completely disregarded the fact that I am not only Chinese but equally white. I’m also American.
If my name wasn’t stereotyped, my appearance or my success were. These attempts to isolate and to “other” me completely disregarded the fact that I am not only Chinese but equally white. I’m also American.
So, I decided that I would pronounce my last name with a silent g. “Simon Doon” (with a hard “n”) sounds better to me than “Simon Doong” anyways… It has a better ring to it.
Fast forward a decade and I am a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in South Korea through the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). As a mixed-race Asian American serving in an Asian country, I wanted to know: How would people see me? Would people interact with me differently because of my “Asianness”? The answer turned out to be a lot like me: a mixed bag. My experience in Korea connected with both the seen and unseen aspects of my identity.
My Chinese heritage blessed me with some Asian physical features which led to interesting personal interactions with Koreans. Sometimes people seemed to interact with me differently than my fellow volunteers who were white. This may be because I didn’t look like a stereotypical American portrayed in western movies and pop culture. Regardless, once people found out I was American, I immediately had a privilege, a status upgrade that I was never entirely comfortable with.
I also realized that even in an Asian country not everyone could tell “where I was from.” One Korean friend said, “Ahhh, well. You’re definitely not Korean…some type of Asian. But with that moustache, maybe Mexican?” I just laughed. This is the story of my mixed-race life right here – even fellow Asians are confused about what I am.
But what surprised me in Korea was how the less “visible” parts of my identity (as an American who is also part white) were challenged just as much as my “Asianness”. As YAVs, we learned about the role of the US in both the Korean War and the current division of North and South Korea. We also learned about how colonial attitudes and teachings of the original missionaries in Korea (including Presbyterian) have perpetuated systems of oppression, orientalism and western dominance.
We also learned about how colonial attitudes and teachings of the original missionaries in Korea (including Presbyterian) have perpetuated systems of oppression, orientalism and western dominance.
These histories expanded my prior concept of identity, which primarily revolved around race and skin color. In the US context, as a mixed-race person, I identify with both the privileges of white America and the marginalization that results from being a person of color in a white privileging society. I can relate to the anger that people of color experience in this society and the “white guilt” or “white shame” that current white Americans feel about a system that, though it benefits them, they didn’t create and do not know how to fix it. I also feel that being mixed-race is its own sphere — an “other” category.
Learning about the role of the US and Christians in Korea made me realize that there is a whole history and privilege to my identities as an American and a Christian that I also inherit. I felt emotional reactions to learning about these histories and privileges – a sense of “American guilt” or “Christian guilt” that I hadn’t experienced before.
As I explored connections between these internal aspects of my identity and my experience in Korea, I also discovered unexpected connections between my Chinese heritage and my time in Korea regarding my name, culture, and even family history. Here is a fun fact: when I was born, my Chinese grandfather gave me a Chinese name by “Frankensteining” the Chinese sounds for “Si” and “mon” and sticking them together with the Chinese character for my family’s last name. I brought a written copy of my Chinese name with me to Korea.
I learned that Korean names are derived from Chinese characters. So I showed my written copy of my name to a Korean advisor. She told me it read “오세문“ (“O Se Mun”) and then wrote it out in Korean. The characters in the Korean language are conveniently (and intelligently) written to reflect the shape of the mouth that you make when you pronounce that particular character. So here I had a Korean name, derived from my Chinese name, that I understood and could actually pronounce! There was no way to butcher it, mispronounce it or get confused by it: O Se Mun is O Se Mun. And that’s me! I felt something inside me shift.
There was no way to butcher it, mispronounce it or get confused by it: O Se Mun is O Se Mun. And that’s me! I felt something inside me shift.
I was so excited about this discovery that I tried to bring it up whenever I met people in Korea. I hoped that it would provide a common ground, a means of connection with these people who live on the same continent as some of my ancestors. That name meant so much to me, though it would never make me Korean or more Asian. However, only a few close Korean friends and my fellow non-Korean YAVs occasionally called me by my Korean name. Most Koreans just smiled when I mentioned it and then never used it. To them, it was merely a fun fact. Maybe my identity as an American was so strong that it made them feel awkward to refer to me with a Korean name. I’ll never know for sure.
Even so, it made me happy to have a visible, tangible name in Korean that I could say and write. However, this name also represented a tension with my actual cultural heritage. Like my Korean name, I could vaguely speak the Korean language and describe Korean history, politics and culture. But I cannot definitively say how to pronounce my last name in Chinese, let alone write it. I also do not speak Chinese and can’t really tell you anything about Chinese culture.
The stronger the connection and understanding I had with Korean friends and Korean culture, the more apparent the gap in my knowledge of my Chinese family’s history and culture became. I found I had less in common with Korean people than I’d initially thought. I wondered if there were any real connections between my background and the country I was living in as a YAV.
The stronger the connection and understanding I had with Korean friends and Korean culture, the more apparent the gap in my knowledge of my Chinese family’s history and culture became.
But life has a way of surprising us. I found one unexpected connection with my family history and my time in Korea. As YAVs, we met a group of Korean elders who survived the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. They described running from their village with bullets being fired at their backs. Families were separated as some members ran into the mountains where they lived for months until they could find a safe place to go. Others stayed in villages occupied by the Japanese. I admired their courage and wondered how anyone could survive such a situation.
A few years later, I was at a funeral for my father’s aunt, who I saw infrequently during her life. During the euology, I heard a familiar story: the Japanese invading a Chinese village when a Chinese woman (my great aunt) put one of her siblings on her back, took the other sibling by the hand, and ran to the mountains where they lived for months in the wild until the occupation ended. I was shocked. Japanese occupation was a part of my family’s history too. I had never imagined this tragic experience would connect me with the people I met in Korea.
Then I reflected on my brief interactions with my great aunt. They were pretty simple. She would reach out to me, squeeze my hand, look me in the eyes and say one of the few English words she knew: my name, “Simon.” Looking back, I see so much more in her eyes than I did before.
And now, when I look in the mirror, I see more in my own eyes. When I meet people, I think I see more in their eyes as well. But I also know that neither physical features nor even a name can tell you everything about a person. It’s only part of their story and their identity.
There is much more to be seen behind the silent “g”.
Simon Doong served as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) in South Korea from 2016-2017 and in New York City (2017-2018). He is currently a Mission Specialist for the Peacemaking Program of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His primary work includes the webinar series on how faith communities can address gun violence, Standing Our Holy Ground.