When I first started writing, the prospect of creating a pen name was enough to get me jumping with anticipation. Finally! A chance to give myself a more exciting last name than the one I was born with, or the unhyphenated, double-barrelled one I got through marriage... A THREAD
Great! I thought. Not only could a good pen name give you ideal placement on the shelves, it could also make you more memorable, accessible, and marketable. In a crowded and competitive world of writers, it was important to be smart about these things.
But the truth is, somewhere deep down, I also believed that no one would buy a book by someone with a Korean name. I feared I’d be written off as an ‘Asian writer’ who was too niche to reach a mainstream audience.
After much deliberation, I ended up on the name Graci Goldhart. My maiden name Kim meant ‘gold’, and ‘hart’ represented my married name (i.e. the name of the man who stole my heart). So together, I thought it made for a marketable and symbolic pen name.
Then my hubby and I went on our belated honeymoon to Korea. He had adopted Kim as a part of his legal name when we got married, and decided he wanted to go see the birthplace for our specific clan of Kims in Gyeongju.
There, we learnt the story of the first Gyeongju Kim being found as a baby in a glowing golden casket, hanging on a branch above a crowing white rooster. The king was very pleased and raised the baby, naming him after the golden light that emanated from the casket.
I had to admit, it was a cool story. But it was just that—a story. To me, the name I shared with over one fifth of the Korean population had come with a whole different set of stories.
To me, Kim was the name that reminded me of all the times kids spat in my lunch, pulled at the ends of their eyes, and called me a “ching chong china man.” The name that reminded me of strangers giving my mum the middle finger, mumbling “stupid Asian” under their breath.
And the one that echoed in my ears as I watched people throw eggs at my dad in his car, shouting at him to get out of their country and never come back.

Kim had always been more than just a name. It had been a constant reminder of my otherness. My not-good-enough-ness.
Then one day I overheard my dad boasting to his childhood friend about how his daughter had been shortlisted for a literary award in New Zealand. “Look,” he said, pointing to a photo of me on his phone, a wide grin on his face. “That’s my girl.”
His friend squinted at the certificate in the photo and frowned. “Why does it say her name is Goldhart? She’s a Kim.”

My dad went silent. He cleared his throat. Finally he answered, “Korean names aren’t as respected as Western ones. My daughter knows what she’s doing.”
At his words, hot tears sprung at my eyes and a pain grew in my chest. For the first time, I realised I wasn’t just hiding my own name, I was hiding my dad’s name too.
When I was younger, Dad had told me about the Japanese occupation of Korea, and how Koreans were forbidden from using their own names. They were forced to adopt Japanese names and speak only in the Japanese tongue.
My ancestors had fought and died to retain their names, their language, and their history. And here I was, concealing it with a made-up name because I thought it was more marketable. Was it really so bad to be a boring, common Kim, along with 10 million other Koreans?
King Sejong the Great, the man who created and promulgated Hangul, the Korean alphabet (deemed the most scientific alphabet in the world) was a Kim. So was the Yuna Kim, one of the greatest women’s figure skaters of all time.
As was Chloe Kim, the youngest woman ever to win an Olympic snowboarding medal. Even the president of the World Bank was a Kim. When I started looking, the list of people doing amazing things who shared my modest last name was humbling.
Closer to home, I reflected on the stories my dad and his siblings had told me about their father—my grandpa. Despite living through a time rife with war and extreme poverty, he had been known in the village as a generous man.
Despite his own hunger, he would leave portions of rice in front of the homes of the poorer, but he’d do it secretly so they wouldn’t know who had afforded them such kindness.
When others ran from those suffering from leprosy, he brought them home, bathed them, gave them the clothes off his back, and fed them. They say at his funeral, the whole village came to mourn; and everyone wept as if they had each lost their own father.
My dad didn’t fall far from the tree. When people stole from his restaurant, he packed them up with more food. “How hungry must they be if they’re stealing it?” he’d say. “Sometimes, people just need a reminder that the world cares about them. It’s my small part to play.”
My dad was my biggest hero. And I was named after my biggest hero.

And suddenly it clicked. My name was not a shackle. My name was my history and my pride. Writing as a Kim was an opportunity to reclaim my name, and to embrace my label.
The pain my name had afflicted was no longer a cause for shame. They made my name stronger, because these three letters now held the story of my life, my dad’s life, my grandpa’s life. And these were our stories to tell.
I know now that Graci Kim is who I am, who I want to be, and who I’m proud to be.

One day when I have my book in my hands, I will proudly give it to my dad and point at our name on the cover. “Look appa,” I’ll say.
“That’s the name you gave me, and the name grandpa gave you. It’s our name, and this book is ours. We did this together.”

And when that day comes, I hope that my dad will be proud of me too.

(CORRECTION: King Sejong the Great was a Lee not a Kim! I’m so sorry to the Lees out there for my mistake - I didn’t mean to steal. He is a legend ❤️)

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