“Hello, my name is Corey Pung, and if you’re wondering what nationality that is, you’re racist.” Such was my opening line back when I used to perform rambling, schtick-heavy, three-minute standup comedy sets at various open mic nights that no one, save seasoned drunks and the aspiring comedians themselves, bothered to attend. Like most jokes, my opening line masked a deeper truth, and a painful one at that: I don’t actually know my own ethnicity.
To put it less dramatically, I know about 75% of my ethnicity. I know, for instance, that on my mother’s side of the family, I’m European and Hispanic. I know this because my grandmother was an obsessive historian of her gene pool who saved every scrap of newsprint that contained someone with her surname. She also enrolled in an Ancestry.com membership despite how her computer was used for little more than an expensive way to play Solitaire or Mahjongg.
Unlike my maternal grandmother, I’ve only seen my surname in print twice. First, I saw it used as an onomatopoeia in one of John Updike’s novels to describe the sound made by a car door opening. Meaning no disrespect to the otherwise stellar wordsmith Mr. Updike, but I’ve never heard a car door go “pung!” no matter how many times I may have wanted it to. The only other time I’ve seen my last name in print was in the pages of James Joyce’s largely unreadable novel Finnegan’s Wake, where it shows up as a one-word sentence, “Pung?” At first I believed some nefarious person with their own printing press was gas-lighting me until I later read a scholar say it was probably short for “pungent.”
As literature offered no help on the matter, I had to go closer the source to decode the mystery of my nationality. However it’s precisely on my father’s side—i.e. the Asian side—of the family that the ambiguity lies.
Having experienced childhood hardships worse than I can readily imagine, my grandparents, who were otherwise the most loquacious people on Earth, were uncharacteristically mum on the topic of their formative years in Hawai‘i. With excessive prodding and persistence I got them to divulge a few details on the matter, like how my grandfather would sometimes catch small sharks while fishing and would have to hit their heads onto the boards at the dock to end their predatory lives, or how my grandmother enjoyed eating purple potatoes imported from Okinawa, but other than those and other such scattered tidbits, I didn’t learn much, and was frankly a little too young to care. It was in this lazy, freewheeling fashion that I fully believed I was Chinese until I was 20, when a Chinese professor of a class titled Asian Arts and Culture informed me politely I most likely wasn’t. Pung, she said, didn’t sound Chinese, and I didn’t look Chinese, for that matter. News to me, I replied.
I wish I could say my sense of cultural identity was shattered upon learning I probably wasn’t Chinese, but the truth was, I was pretty ambivalent towards my nationality up to that point in my life. I was, after all, a fourth generation Asian-American. The transmission of culture tends to fade after the second or third generation, and since my Asian grandparents were born in the United States and spoke English as their first language, there wasn’t much to pass on anyways. I often wish there was more passed down to me; in high-school I nearly flunked out of Japanese and had to retake it on a remedial level in college, and to this day I can’t hold chopsticks without embarrassment and noodle shaped stains being slashed across my shirts.
Finally, at a family reunion featuring more Pungs than I ever knew existed, my grandfather finally opened up about our shared lineage. All it took was the combined querulousness of an entire party of relatives badgering him. I recall waiting with bated breath as he launched into what was sure to be a tale as bloody and epic as one of Shakespeare’s family sagas.
The story he told went as follows: as a child, he was outside one day doing his chores when a stranger happened to walk by and asked, “What ‘nationality’ are you?” My grandfather answered, “Chinese.” The stranger replied “No, I knew your father. You’re Korean.” “Korean, really?” “Yeah, Korean.” And that was it. My relatives crowded around to hear more, but my grandfather had reached the conclusion of his tale and didn’t seem to understand our mixed-reactions.
At first, I was waylaid by disappointment by the story. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting or hoping for—maybe an emperor or two, or perhaps a political dissident who stood up to tyranny—but I definitely wasn’t anticipating such a domestic and rather humble scene. Once the initial blow subsided however, I took great solace in knowing I wasn’t the only one in my family who spent his childhood thinking he was Chinese only to find out from a casual encounter with a secondhand source that he wasn’t.
If you’re wondering why I’m so hung up on my last name at all, let me point out that it’s not because of some stereotypical sense of family honor and pride, but rather because I have spent a chunk of my life trying to recover the sense of pride I lost while coming of age in the generation before “anti-bullying” was a common phrase.
As a child, I grew up in a predominately white and rather non-progressive neighborhood that won’t be named where I was teased on the regular for my last name, despite it being something I had absolutely no control over. Of course, most, if not all, childhood animosity is based on that which no one has control over. Freud called it the “narcissism of minor differences.” My classmates took the minor difference of my odd last name and made it into a sort of ongoing project for them. How many permutations could they make? No matter how many times I moved or changed classes, I’d hear my name as “Lung,” “Ping Pong,” “Punk,” and “Pug.” Surprisingly few took the initiative to say “Dung,” although I’m not sure if I can call that mercy on their part or a sign of a lackluster vocabulary. Teachers, meaning no offense, would sometimes call me by “Poong” or even “Pe-yoong” despite how it’s pronounced exactly as it’s spelled.
Imagine my surprise then when, in what would prove to be the final months of his life, my grandfather took on a professorial air and explained to me that Pung itself was a mispronunciation of our original family name. According to the very scanty details he shared with me that day, his own father had emigrated to Japan at a time when hostilities with Korea had reached a dangerous peak. Not wishing to be associated with the anathematized nation, his father had changed the pronunciation of the family name to make it sound more Chinese than Korean. The Chinese weren’t on great terms with the Japanese then either, but apparently there was a tiered system to nationalist rancor, and to be thought of as Chinese was the safer bet. This finally offered me the “Aha!” moment I’d been waiting for.
Also, according to my grandfather, my great-grandfather escaped a potentially fatal run-in with the authorities by hiding in a barrel. This info didn’t offer a similar elucidation for me.
This glimpse into history cleared up a lot of things. Most prominently, it explains why so many people, myself included, could think my patrilineage was Chinese. It also explained why I never encountered my name in literature including Asian textbooks (apart from Updike’s use of it as a sound-effect or Joyce’s pun). And so I learned the truth behind my family history is a fiction. You’d think as an aspiring fiction writer myself I’d find inspiration in having fiction very much a part of my blood, but I have to confess there have been numerous times when I’ve considered changing my name to try and achieve greater success as a writer. At least now I know that if I did change my name to better fit in with the prevailing status quo, I wouldn’t be the first person in my family to do so.
Since my grandfather was in a more obliging mood than usual, I pressed him to tell me what the family name was before my great-grandfather altered it, then I had him repeat the name a few times over to make sure I was hearing it right. I’m not positive how to correctly romanize it, except to say it sounded like he was saying our original name was “Po-hyung.” All my great-grandfather did was shorten it.
For a time, this story satisfied me, and since my grandfather passed away, I decided this was about all of the resolution I would ever get on the matter. However, in preparing to write this piece, I did something I probably should have done ages ago. I Googled my family name, and I’m now wishing I hadn’t. Just as Pung was a name without a history, so too did I not find any instance of “Po-hyung” or “Po-yeong,” or “Po-young,” or a handful of other different spellings. The closest thing I found was “Bo-Young,” which seemed an unlikely candidate, because why then would my great-grandfather change it to Pung and not Bung?
Once I started down this line of thinking, a number of other gaping holes in the story opened up. Why, for example, had there been a mysterious stranger walking down the road asking children their ‘nationalities,’ and why should his word be trusted when he told my grandfather he was Korean? And if my great-grandfather had wanted to pass himself off as Chinese, why hadn’t he simply chosen a Chinese surname, rather than a name it took no time at all for my Chinese professor to specify was not Chinese? And how much truthfulness should I really expect from a story that also featured my great-grandfather saving his own life by hiding in a barrel?
It was after mentally running myself ragged over these questions that I arrived at what is most likely the greatest state of clarity I’m ever to achieve on the matter, and that is, all of this is merely self-important nattering and quibbling when compared to the larger issue: Why was there ever a mystery at all?
The facts as I know them are as follows.
My grandfather’s father passed away when my grandfather was 1 years old, and his mother, for whatever reason, was largely out of the picture, leaving him and his siblings to raise each other, thus explaining why he didn’t know his family origin. My paternal grandmother also lost family members at a young age; two brothers from causes she doesn’t like to speak of, which explains her own evasions about her childhood except for the simple detail of loving yams.
What further explains their reticence and lack of nostalgia are the stories of how my grandfather was disbarred from joining the Catholic church on Maui due to his being raised a Buddhist (if you can call being watched over by his older sister being raised), while my grandmother’s family were only able to immigrate into a shanty-town that was part of a sugar-cane plantation, despite how her father was a doctor before leaving Japan, and how she was later nearly sent to a Japanese incarceration camp during World War II, despite that she was born in the United States and had never been out of the country.
Frankly, I don’t want to know what other horrible things may have befallen them as children. All I know is, being pushed around and called “Corey Ping Pong” doesn’t seem so bad in comparison. I’m content at this point to accept the fiction behind my family history. Everything else just seems like racism.