The title of this essay is my name. That’s how I spell it in English. It’s spelled the same way on my passport.
I began learning English in middle school. It was the first foreign language I learned. I remember staring blankly at the words “Good Morning” and “Good Evening” in my textbook on the first day of class, clueless of how to read them (the classmate who sat with me made fun of me at the time, but I had my revenge later when I used her name in a novel…). Soon after the semester began, I went down to the teachers’ lounge with a slip of paper in my hand and waited there for my English teacher. I was curious to see what my name looked like in English and was planning to ask her to write it down for me. Bashful and unaccustomed to making requests of adults, I was on tenterhooks as I waited for her. The English teacher was an old dame who wore thick glasses, read and wrote at a snail’s pace, and, come summer or winter, kept her calves ensconced in socks on account of her varicose veins. Beside the reddish glow of the heater, she mulled over my question for a while before finally jotting down “Jungeun.” So that was the spelling I used whenever I had to write my name in English. Only years later did I learn that I could spell my name as Jeong-eun too, but I stuck to Jungeun because it was shorter.
Jungeun (or Jeong-eun, as it is more commonly spelled) is a fairly common name in Korea. Apart from Hwang Jungeun, names like Park Jeong-eun, Lee Jeong-eun, Kang Jeong-eun, Ko Jeong-eun, Hyun Jeong-eun, Dokgo Jeong-eun, Shin Jeong-eun, Han Jeong-eun, Joo Jeong-eun, Jo Jeong-eun, Jang Jeongeun, Hong Jeong-eun, Woo Jeong-eun, and Oh Jeongeun are also quite common. So I was surprised to learn a commonplace name like mine could be difficult to pronounce in a foreign language.
I realized this in 2014. In fall of that year, I met the Japanese-German writer Tawada Yoko at the Seoul International Writers’ Festival. She told me she couldn’t pronounce my name in German and instead read it as “Yungen.” The pressing festival schedule left me with no time to think about what she’d said, and I simply thought of it as an interesting anecdote. That was how I felt at the time.
I heard that name again on a trip I took after the festival ended. It happened at a hotel in Berlin. The receptionist who was checking my reservation read out my name as Yungen. It was as though she were saying, “Yes, Ms. Tawada, you’re right!” If Yoko hadn’t told me that my name was pronounced as “Yungen” in German, I wouldn’t have heard that “word.” Jungeun and Yungen are so different, I’d never have realized she was calling out my name. I’d have assumed she was uttering one of the many German words I didn’t know or some technical term used at hotels… and would’ve given it no thought. As I’m writing this, a thought strikes me: How is the name of Kim Jungeun (more commonly Romanized as Kim Jong-un), a figure of enduring interest for the international press, pronounc...