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The Name Jar

By Yangsook Choi

Summary

When Unhei, a young Korean girl, moves to America with her family and arrives at a new school, she begins to wonder if she should also choose a new name. Her classmates suggest Daisy, Miranda, Lex, and more, but nothing seems to fit. Does she need an American name? How will she choose? And what should she do about her Korean name?

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Sarah Hopson

Throughout The Name Jar, questions about difference and identity underlie Unhei’s consideration of taking an American name rather than using her given Korean name at school. Is it good to be different or bad to be different? How do we respond to difference? Is a name just another word, or it is something more? How closely is one’s identity connected to one’s name? What are the implications of changing one’s name?

In terms of difference, today’s society strongly emphasizes tolerance in the form acceptance and often even celebration of difference. Despite this, division and alienation as a result of differences continue to arise. If we adopt an attitude of celebrating difference, can we go so far as to say that difference is always good? While it certainly seems beneficial to recognize, value, and appreciate difference in general, it doesn’t necessarily seem reasonable to simply accept certain ideological differences which lead to great pain and suffering. What then should be done? For some, it is enough to identify and understand the reasons for the difference or to promote conversation across the difference, while others claim that steps should be taken to minimize the difference. The Name Jar asks many of these questions in the context of Unhei’s difference from her peers, particularly in the form of her name, and thus provides an opening for discussion of how it feels to be different and the ways in which we should respond to difference in others.

As for identity, the term is generally used in philosophy to refer to whatever it is that makes an entity recognizable as distinct from others, in this case the set of characteristics that distinguishes one person from another. The Name Jar particularly addresses social identity, the way in which individuals define themselves in relation to others. This issue is seen in the story as Unhei changes the way in which she introduces herself to others depending on prior reactions and on the context of that point in the story: from saying her real name on the bus to claiming that she does not yet have a name when she meets her new class, from telling Mr. Kim her real name to sharing her name choice with her class. What is it about each situation that influences this behavior and what can this tell us about social identity? Themes that might emerge here include ways in which one’s identity is shaped by family and culture and the role of peers, family, and society in supporting or denying the development of one’s identity.

More specifically, The Name Jar encourages a consideration of assimilation, particularly cultural assimilation, one example of which is often the changing of one’s name. What does the choice to change one’s name entail and what significance does it have? Arguments in favor of name change for cultural reasons include having an easily pronounceable name, showing acceptance of the new culture, and minimizing difference, while arguments against include maintaining cultural identity, keeping family history and lineage alive, and retaining connections. The Name Jar shows Unhei experiencing many of these conflicting pressures: wanting to fit in with her new classmates and not be teased for her Korean name yet retaining strong ties to this name through her family culture and name stamp. Discussing these issues begins to address the question of what connection peoples’ names have with their identity and whether or not this connection is the same for everybody or not.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

On the bus, none of the children are able to pronounce Unhei’s name.

  1. How do the other children respond when Unhei introduces herself on the bus? Why do they act this way? Do you think things would have been different if the children had been able to pronounce Unhei’s name? Why or why not?
  2. How does Unhei feel by the time the bus arrives at school? How can you tell?
  3. Have you ever had an experience like Unhei’s?
  4. Do you think that the children on the bus could have responded to Unhei’s name in a different way? What could they have done, and how would that have made a difference?
  5. What should we do when we have difficulty pronouncing other peoples’ names? Is it important that we say them correctly? Why or why not?
  6. How should we respond to people who are different than us? Why?

When her new class asks for her name, Unhei replies, “Um, I haven’t picked one yet.” When she goes home, she tells her mother, “I think I would like my own American name.”

  1. Why does Unhei choose not to share her name with her class? How does the class react?
  2. How does Unhei explain her wish for an American name to her mother? How does her mother respond? Do you agree with Unhei’s mother, that being different is a good thing? Why or why not?
  3. In what ways are you different from other people? Is each good or bad? Why?
  4. What do you think would be a good thing about Unhei having an American name? What would be bad? Why?
  5. What makes a name an American name? Why? What kind of name is your name?

The next day when Unhei arrives at school, she finds the name jar on her desk.

  1. Why does Unhei’s class create the name jar? What is it for?
  2. How does Unhei feel about the name jar? How can you tell?
  3. What are the differences between the ways that the children on the bus responded to Unhei and the ways that her class responds? Why do you think this is?
  4. What are some of reasons for the names that Unhei’s classmates suggest? Are these good reasons for picking names? Why or why not?
  5. How do Joey and the class support Unhei as she thinks about choosing a new name? Do you think that this was important? Why or why not?
  6. Do you think that the class cares which name Unhei chooses? Will it make a difference? Why or why not?

Unhei spends a lot of time thinking about a new name, during which time she visits Mr. Kim’s shop, shows Joey her name stamp, and receives a letter from her grandma.

  1. What do we learn about Unhei’s name when she visits Mr. Kim’s shop? Is this important? Why?
  2. Do all names have meaning? Why or why not? Where do those meanings come from?
  3. What does Unhei share with Joey? Why does she do this? How do you think Unhei is feeling about her name when she does this?
  4. How can somebody have a name that they can show you but not tell you? Can you think of any other names like that?
  5. What does her grandma’s letter make Unhei think about? How is Unhei’s name connected to her grandma? Is your name connected to your family? How?
  6. What is the purpose of names? Why do we have them? Does your name help to make you who you are? Why or why not?

After the weekend, Unhei is ready to introduce herself to the class. “‘I liked the beautiful names and funny names you thought of for me,’ she told the class. ‘But I realized that I liked my name best, so I chose it again.’”

  1. Why does Unhei choose her own name at the end? What were some of the experiences that helped her to decide this? Do you think this was the right choice? Why or why not?
  2. If you could choose your own name, would you choose the name you already have or would you pick a different one? Why?
  3. Could Unhei still have been Unhei if she had picked a different name? Why or why not?
  4. How does Unhei’s class respond when she tells them her name? Why is this important?
  5. How do you think Unhei felt about her name by the end of the story? Why?
  6. What can we say about names and their importance? Is a name just another word or is it something more? Why?

This book module deals with multiculturalism, society, specifically social identity, and ethics, specifically friendship. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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