The Name Jar


October 17, 2001|By Yangsook Choi

Editor's note: What's in a name? If it's unusual, a lot of anxiety, one girl discovers.

Through the school bus window, Unhei looked out at the strange buildings and houses on the way to her new school. It was her first day, and she was both nervous and excited.

"Are you new here? What's you name?" a girl asked.

"Unhei," said Unhei.

"Ooh-ney?" the girl asked, scrunching up her face.

"Oooh, oooh, oooh-ney!" some kids chanted.

"No, no," Unhei corrected. "It's spelled U-N-H-E-I. It's pronounced Yoon-hye."

"Oh, it's Yoo-hey," the boy said. "Like, `You, hey!' What about `Hey, you!'"

Just then, the bus pulled up to the school and the doors opened. Unhei hurried to get off.

"You-hey, bye-bye!" the kids yelled as she left. Unhei felt herself blush.

Unhei stood in the doorway of her new and noisy classroom. She was relieved that the kids on the bus had gone to other rooms, but her face still felt red.

"Aren't you going in?" asked a curly haired boy with lots of dots on his face. "You're the new girl, right?" he asked cheerfully.

Unhei nodded, and before she could walk away, the boy took her hand and pulled her through the door.

"Here's the new girl!" he announced so loudly that the teacher, Mr. Cocotos, almost dropped his glasses.

Mr. Cocotos thanked him and greeted Unhei. "Please welcome our newest student," he said to the class. "She and her family just arrived from Korea last week."

Unhei smiled broadly and tried not to show her nervousness.

"What's your name?" someone shouted.

Unhei pictured the kids on the bus. "Um, I haven't picked one yet," she told the class. "But I'll let you know by next week."

As Mr. Cocotos showed her to her desk, she felt many round, curious eyes on her.

"Why doesn't she have a name?" she heard someone whisper.

"Maybe she robbed a bank in Korea and needs a new identity," a boy replied.

On the bus home, nobody teased her, but Unhei kept thinking about her name.

"How was school, Unhei?" her mother asked when she walked in. "Did you understand the teacher?"

Unhei simply nodded. "I think I would like my own American name," she said quickly.

Her mother looked at her with surprise. "Why? Unhei is a beautiful name. Your grandma and I went to a name master for it."

"But it's so hard to pronounce," Unhei complained. "I don't want to be different from all the American kids."

"You are different, Unhei" her mother said. "That's a good thing!"

Unhei just wrinkled her nose.

Later that day, Unhei and her mother went grocery shopping in their new neighborhood. At the checkout counter, a friendly man smiled at Unhei. "Helping your mother with the shopping?" he asked.

Unhei nodded.

"I'm Mr. Kim," he said. "And what is your name?"

"Unhei," she answered.

"Ahh, what a beautiful name," he said. "Doesn't it mean grace?"

Unhei nodded again.

"A graceful name for a graceful girl," Mr. Kim said as he put their groceries into bags. "Welcome to the neighborhood, Unhei."

The next morning, when Unhei arrived at school, she found a glass jar on her desk with some pieces of paper in it. Unhei took one out and read it aloud.


"Yeah, you came here on a Wednesday," said Ralph.

"Thank you ... for your help." A smile spread over Unhei's face.

Ralph quickly said, "We'll put more names in. You can pick whatever you like - or pick them all, and you'll have the longest name in history!"

Unhei turned around to see the curly haired boy again.

"I'm Joey," he said. "And you? Don't you have any name?"

Unhei thought for a moment. "Well ... I can show you," she said, and took out a small red pouch. She pressed the wooden block on the ink pad and then stamped it on a piece of paper.

"This is my name stamp," she said. "My grandma gave it to me. In Korea, I can use it as a signature when I open a bank account or write a letter. And whenever I miss my grandma, I use it to fill a piece of paper."

Every day, the jar got fuller with more names, and Unhei read them all. She found a few names she liked - Miranda. Stella. Avery. They sounded interesting.

On Monday, Unhei came to class early to look at the names one last time. But the jar wasn't on her desk. As other kids arrived, they helped look.

Soon, Mr. Cocotos came in and Ralph shouted at him, "The name jar is gone! The jar with all the names in it!"

"Gone?" Mr. Cocotos replied. With a look of concern, he asked Unhei, "Did you get a chance to read all the names?"

Unhei nodded. She took a breath. "I'm ready to introduce myself," she said.

Unhei wrote her name in both English and Korean on the chalkboard.

"I liked the beautiful names and funny names you thought of for me," she told the class. "But I realized that I like my name best, so I chose it again. Korean names mean something. Unhei means grace."

"Grace! Grace In-hye!" shouted Ralph. Everyone tried to say it. "Yn-ha-e. Unh-yee. Unhae."

Unhei said her name again slowly and clearly. Soon, the kids began to say it better. Even Mr. Cocotos. They applauded Unhei's choice.

Unhei said good-bye and then looked around for Joey. But he was already gone.

"Unhei! Unhei! Come downstairs! Mother called up to Unhei. "Your friend is here!"

Unhei rushed down to see who she meant. There stood Joey. And in his arms was the name jar."Where did you find it?" asked Unhei breathlessly.

Joey looked embarrassed. "Um, well, I took it. But only because I wanted you to keep your own name. And you did!"

From THE NAME JAR by Yangsook Choi. Copyright; 2001 by Yangsook Choi. Reprinted by arrangement with Random House Children's Books, a division of Random House, Inc. New York, New York. All rights reserved.

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