The Name Jar
By Yangsook Choi
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.
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.”
The next day when Unhei arrives at school, she finds the name jar on her desk.
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.
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.’”