I have always felt uncomfortable with my name – Nelly.
It doesn’t quite roll off the tongue, it’s hard to understand over the phone, it’s almost always misspelled (is that with a Y or IE?) and people often think I am an 80-year-old white grandmother. And don’t even get me started on “Little House on the Prairie.”
How did a Korean girl get this name, you ask?
Oddly enough, it has an Olympic connection. My parents were inspired by Nellie Kim, the Korean-Russian gymnast who won gold medals in the 1970s. She won three gold medals during the 1976 Summer Games, the year I became Nelly. Apparently, I was a rather clumsy child. They hoped that giving me the name of a super-athlete would help me stay on my feet better.
Things turned around in 2000, when the rapper Nelly (Cornell Hayes Jr.) hit the charts. Suddenly, my name was cool and festive. “Hi, I’m Nelly. You know, like the rapper.” I could even buy ready-made personalized jewelry, T-shirts and boy shorts. Another Nelly became a hit around that time — the Canadian singer Nelly Furtado, who, incidentally, was also named after the Soviet gymnast.
Still, I wished my name was short for something cool, like Cornell. Or even Penelope. I briefly considered legally changing my name, to something more contemporary. Casey was a top contender, and I even experimented using this name with new acquaintances.
So, what’s in a name? A rose by any other name… and all that, but I now believe there is a lot in a name. If one is uncomfortable in one’s name, one is uncomfortable in oneself.
So when it came time to name my son, my focus was on ease and comfort. Ben – a very solid citizen type of name, I mean, who wouldn’t want to be friends with a Ben? It’s also easy to pronounce in any language. Which is good, because Ben is already living a multi-cultural life – enrolled at Korean preschool, living in China and making Chinese friends. I’m glad he doesn’t have to deal with misspellings or mispronunciations, wherever he goes.
Perhaps I will go back to using my birth name, Kyungnim. Difficulties living with that name, even in Korea, well, that’s a whole another story.