Is This a Typo?
(Sun Ho Lee and Silly Geese Press, 2023)
According to my dad, he first heard the name “Karen” on an English learning TV program called Follow Me! My Chinese name was inspired by Seattle, the city where I was born. In Chinese, Seattle is 西雅图. The middle character, 雅, pronounced “ya,” is my middle name and my Chinese name. 雅 means “elegant” or “graceful.” My parents call me Yaya, and everyone else calls me Karen.
Part manifesto and part anti-yearbook, Is This a Typo? is a collection of personal stories and portraits about Asian names. Borrowing its title from the automated language of word processor spell checks and iMessage autocorrects, Is This a Typo? creates a literal and material space for Asian names recognized as errors on digital interfaces. Printed in monochrome royal blue, it evokes the palette of Windows 2000 and the Microsoft Word logo. The familiar squiggly line that often accompanies “unrecognized” Asian names adorns the cover, the table of contents, and the acknowledgements page. Composed of interviews, portraits, and images of the art installation that inspired the book, Is This a Typo? creates a collaged family album of people living in between names, places, cultures, languages, and identities.
Each interview entry notes where the contributor was born and where they live now, highlighting the long distances between countries and generations. Many of the contributors tell the stories and origins of their names, recounting their parents’ and grandparents’ decision-making, explaining the meanings behind their names in Korean, Chinese, Sinhalese, and Arabic. Halim Lee notes that “Halim means summer forest, one full of life.” Seungmin Roh writes, “My name literally translates into ‘inheriting like a jade.’” The personal narratives vary in length and tone. Some are brief and direct: Gunju Kim writes, “I give the name Jenny at Starbucks just to make my life a little easier.” Printed in large letters that take up two full pages, Prateek Shankar notes, “I have a coffee shop name—Pat, for the benefit of other peeps.”
Others expand from the personal to the historical and political, like Mia Charlene White, who traces the origin of her name to when her father was stationed in Busan. “Despite the ongoing harm of the global US military complex,” she explains, “I remember that it was my Black American father who gave me a Korean name, and that his intention was love.” Jieun Ko writes about how the Korean War separated and impacted multiple generations of her family, and how her mother named her wisdom, “Because she believed education was my way out from the difficult life she had to live…My name is a gift. A wish. A blessing, a prophesy, and a hope.” Dowon Yoo simply states, “Well, my advisor still pronounces my name wrong after a year.”
There are two pop cultural references interspersed throughout the interview entries. The first section of the book is a series of screengrabs of a conversation between Steven Yeun and Conan O’Brien from his show. Conan O’Brien tells a story of when Steven Yeun told him “By the way, Conan, you’re pronouncing my last name wrong,” after the two had been friends for a while. Yeun explains his reasoning, “I just, I felt bad. Like you can’t stop someone from mispronouncing your name…And then you’re like, oh, everybody’s embarrassed, and it’s a net loss.” Is This a Typo? can be read as a reaction against Yeun’s shoulder-shrugged resignation. The book, created and edited by Sun Ho Lee, is dedicated “To 15 year old Sun Ho, Your name matters.”
The other reference is to KTVU’s reporting of the Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crash in July 2013. During a noon broadcast on July 12, a KTVU anchor read a series of fake racist names from her teleprompter while they were displayed on screen. On pages 52 and 53, the image of a charred and crumbling plane is opposite a screengrab of the racist news graphic. Placed side by side, these images are a reminder of the Anti-Asian racism that has always been a part of American culture, the long history of otherness and dehumanization that can be shrugged off as a joke until it can’t.
If Is This a Typo? can be read as a manifesto of reclaiming one’s “unrecognizable” Asian name and identity in a society that routinely rejects it, it is also a statement on the multifaceted and multidimensional nature of Asian and Asian-American identity. Though many of the interviews and entries share themes of otherness and belonging, of immigration and dislocation, some contributors are matter of fact about their ambivalence. Dong Heng Yang writes, “In America, I go by YDH, DY, YD, whatever abbreviation people like. I don’t really care.”
Most of the interview entries are accompanied by childhood photos, lending an intimate and familiar feel to the pages. Some contributors are photographed behind fused shards of glass, their faces and hair distorted and blurred. These portraits reflect the overall form of the book, combining many individual stories into a collective narrative that doesn’t seek to generalize or reach for easy conclusions. Instead, Is This a Typo? gives a voice, space, and authority to its contributors, allowing them to be authors of the stories of their own names, given and chosen.