My Korean name is Ki Sun, and I’m choosing not to be ashamed of it anymore

Ottawa·First Person

Priscilla Hwang has a complicated relationship with her Korean name, Ki Sun. After living and working in the Northwest Territories, where some people are fighting to take back their Indigenous names, she writes about her choice to reclaim her own.

CBC's Duk Han Lee, who is also Korean Canadian, created this illustration to capture my complicated relationship with my English and Korean names. He also translated the piece into Korean.(Duk Han Lee/CBC)

For most of my life, I've been ashamed of my name.

Not my anglicized name, which is what my colleagues and friends have always called me, even though it doesn't appear on my driver's licence or my passport.

My legal name. My Korean name. My realname — the one my grandfather gave to me at birth.


In English, it's spelled out Hwang Ki Sun, or Ki Sun Hwang if you switch my surname around, which is the structure in many Asian cultures where the family name comes first. It's pronounded "Gkee Suhn" — the first name is like a mix between "Guy" (the French name) and "key."

It means to shine brightly with kindness on this earth, always.

Ironically, for most of my life, my name was something I wanted to hide.

I remember dreading the first day of school, when I'd have to explain to my new teachers that I had an "English name" that they could call me by, "please and thanks."

    It was the worst when I had a substitute teacher.

    "Kee? Kye? Kai … soon?" My classmates would giggle, looking around frantically for the mystery peer they never knew they had.

    CBC's Duk Han Lee created this illustration to capture my feelings as a child in school when teachers would struggle to pronounce my Korean name, Ki Sun.(Duk Han Lee/CBC)

    Mortified, I'd raise my hand and correct them right away.

    "You can call me Priscilla."

    Where did Priscilla even come from?

    Growing up, I remember asking my parents why they gave me the name Priscilla when I already had a Korean name.

    My mom told me when we immigrated to Canada (I was three), someone suggested calling me Priscilla, like the woman in the Bible. (More commonly known here as Elvis Presley's wife, I quickly learned.)

    "When you were about to start school, people said you needed an English name. So I asked a pastor for help, to give you a good, faith-based name," my mom, Joung Suk Hwang, told me over the phone in Korean when I called her about writing this piece.

    "I thought we had to give you an English name at the time. Looking back now, we didn't really have to do that," she said.

    "And if you say 'Ki Sun' to someone here, they find it difficult to pronounce."

    My kindergarten class photo. I am dressed in a hanbok, a traditional Korean dress.(Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

    It broke my heart a little to tell my mom I was relieved to be called Priscilla and had grown up ashamed of my Korean name.

    It's not the first time she'd heard that I was embarrassed of being Korean.

    There were times when I came home crying and angry because my mom packed me 김밥 (gimbap) for lunch, best described as a Korean sushi roll. My classmates had made fun of me and I ended up eating it during recess, tears streaming down my face, with my teacher.

    "I was never [embarrassed of your name]," my mom responded. "Because the name Ki Sun signifies our nationality … Pride. We're Canadian, but we're also Korean Canadian."

    My time in the North

    The first time I really confronted my complicated feelings for my name was while living in Yellowknife.

    I reported on several people's journeys to reclaim their traditional Indigenous names.

    "Our ancestors, they were born like that — so why can't we be born with those names?" Denenize Basil told me in 2018. He had changed his first name legally from Jacob a few years earlier.

    "It's our birthright," he said. "In ways, it helped me find myself."

    "[Pingo] wasn't our grandparents [or] … our great-grandparents name. It was just something the government put on to our people," Anna Pingo told me, after finding out her surname was supposed to be Pingersugerook or Pingasugruk, the spelling she believes is closest to the Inuvialuktun alphabet.

    "I want to wake [my culture] up and to say this is who we are."

    A shot of my messy desk at the CBC North bureau in Yellowknife, where I used to work. All of my work-related mail is addressed to 'Priscilla Hwang.'(Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

    After work, my mind wandered. I started reflecting on my name for the first time.

    Why do I want to hide it so much? Am I not proud of my language or culture? Why do I want to conform to the "Canadian norm"? How did I become this way?

    The people I met in the North are fighting to reclaim their traditional names; meanwhile, up until that point I had seriously contemplated changing mine legally to my anglicized name. I started to think about why and what my name meant to me.

    My name is beautiful

    Growing up Korean Canadian, I hate that I was made to feel less, or different, because of my skin colour, food, culture, mannerisms and first language. The racist incidents and microaggressions conditioned me to hide the only "Asian" part of me that I could: my name.

    To me, Ki Sun symbolized just how different I was from everyone else. Priscilla, on the other hand, was a little more accepted here, I told myself.

    But those were all lies.

    "I don't think it's really important, what name you go by. Because it's you. You. Ki Sun and Priscilla, it's you," said my mom, laughing, at the end of our conversation.

    "Doesn't matter!"

    She's right.

    From left to right, my sister, mom and I looking at the mountains in Banff, Alta.(Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang/CBC)

    It's not easy to turn on a switch and erase decades of baggage attached to my name.

    But thanks to those who showed me the power in reclaiming one's identity and culture, I'm growing more and more courageous to also identify as Ki Sun.

    It started small and it's still a process and daily choice: I added my name to my personal social media accounts last year.

    I am trying not to correct those, such as the bank teller and CRA agent, who call me by my legal name.

    I'm sharing my name and story with more people in my life. Today, I am adding it to my byline.

    My name is beautiful. Both my names are, actually.

    Together they represent my journey as a Korean Canadian, grappling with her identity.

    It took 30 years but I can finally say I'm proud to be 황기선.

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