What I learned from Coates’ ‘Between the World and Me’
First off, there is no way I can encapsulate everything I learned from this book in one small post. This tiny book focuses on the death of Prince Jones, and is a behemoth of emotions and insights that cannot be rightfully reviewed or detailed. Almost every page brought me pause, and even after a week of finishing it, I still ruminate over its implications. The least of which is below.
While walking the other day—here in Korea—one element of Mr. Coates’ book struck me particularly strong. In my Korean context, it is quite normal for Korean children and other learners of English to adopt Western names, usually of the Biblical type as in Mark, John, Paul, and David. Strangely, my middle name—Michael (the most common name in America)—is undetectable here; not one child so far in my ten year tenure, which explains why they keep pronouncing it as ‘Michelle.’
The peculiarity strikes me after recalling my French and German classes where I, too, took on foreign names, only to hastily discard them as soon as the classes ended. However, here in Korea, this doesn’t happen so quickly.
Many students hold on to their names throughout all of their schooling, including my wife, who as an English teacher, is now known and addressed by her English name regularly by mothers. In fact, one of her close friends once even asked her to get the phone number of a certain reputable teacher, only to have my wife turn to her and say, “I am her,” in full Gatsby manner (sans the Gatsby smile, of course—no one can pull off that smile, not even Leonardo DiCaprio.)
I guess what I’m saying is I don’t understand why Koreans so readily adopt Western names to appear more comfortable to the West. Many Korean stars have already done so—Gianna Jun, just to name one. Yet it has never made sense to me. Korea is a full culture that is related and expressed in their names. What is wrong with Korean names in a Western context?
With this, I return to Coates’ book. He sets down that, in his own vocabulary, that he and others like him are forced to live along others who believe they are white and whom perpetrate the advance and belief of the Dream—the belief of being white. I love the way he rarely uses the word ‘racism’ because, as he points out early on, many say they are not racist and yet act in a way that clear fuels a greater systemic problem.
In this way, we get to the tragic tale of his friend, Prince Jones, and already, with the mention of his first name, I can hear a certain sub-section of America scoffing at it. His name, as many African American names do, represents a collection of values and culture, but sadly are used by a number of individuals at large as one more bit of proof as to why people like Prince Jones will never fit into society. And until now, I didn’t understand either side. A name is a name, no?
But after reading his entire book, I’ve never been hit so hard with this dichotomy. I see the readiness of certain Koreans to toss of their names to appease Western values, and find it strange and a bit disconcerting, and yet at home, this ridiculousness is regularly thrust upon a whole group of Americans how are ‘Western!’ I just can’t help buy wonder why must everyone have white-worthy names to succeed or be recognized? It doesn’t make sense to me.