Monday 17 December 2018

My namesake found me after 24 years

She had known the story of how she got her name all her life and had always wanted to find me, writes Penny George sharing her experience with the Guardian. Read on: 

After I graduated from university in 1993, I went to work in Auckland for a year, teaching English to foreign students. I had always wanted to travel and my grandfather and one of my aunts lived in New Zealand, which made it an easy option. I quickly settled into my new life. Among my new friends were a Korean couple about my age, Kumlyong and Mihwa, who were in one of my classes. They were great fun; we laughed a lot.

Kumlyong and Mihwa had decided to emigrate from South Korea; the political climate there at the time was not good, and they were looking for somewhere open-minded and accepting. Canada seemed a good option. While their application was being processed, they moved to South Korea for a while, having just discovered that Mihwa was pregnant with their first child, a girl. I was sad to see them go, but we promised to stay in touch. Whenever I wanted to send them a letter, I had to find a Korean person to write the address on the envelope, because I couldn’t copy the Korean symbols accurately.

In one letter they sent me, they asked if they could name the baby after me. I felt so honoured and wrote straight back to say yes. I remember receiving one more letter, a few months later, with a picture of Mihwa holding the newborn Penny. Sadly, after their move to Canada and my return home to Scotland, we lost touch.

 ‘I feel as if I have found something akin to a long-lost daughter.’ Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian
I travelled a lot over the years, living in Europe and Africa, finally settling into a career managing community energy projects in Africa for the Scottish government. But wherever I was, I would often think about my young namesake. With the advent of the internet, I searched regularly for Penny and her parents, but never with any luck.

Out of the blue, a couple of weeks before Christmas last year, my phone beeped. It was a slightly hesitant message from a young Korean-Canadian lady who said she thought she might be named after me. She asked if I had lived in New Zealand in 1994. I was completely overjoyed. I had had no idea whether “Little” Penny even knew the story behind her name, so to discover that she had been looking for me gave me a warm feeling.

We ended up messaging all evening and I discovered that Penny was now 23 – which made me feel ancient. She had known the story of how she got her name all her life and had always wanted to find me, but her parents had not been able to remember my surname. However, that day, her father had come across one of my old letters, with my surname on the envelope. Armed with this, Penny did a search on Facebook and her mother recognised me instantly.

We chatted a lot via Messenger after that. Penny told me that she feels incredibly lucky to have grown up in Canada, surrounded by diversity and acceptance, and that she is grateful to be fluent in English. She said she is often asked why she has her name – not a common one in Canada and particularly unusual for a Korean-Canadian.

After a few months, Penny ended up making plans to travel with her family to Europe, tagging on Scotland at the end to allow the Pennys to meet. I went to meet her and her family at Edinburgh airport at the end of August this year. Waiting felt like being in a film; almost surreal. I recognised her straight away. I hugged Little Penny and adored her instantly. She has a lovely voice that makes her sound older than she is and she comes across as a very calm person – very unlike me. Within a few hours of meeting, we found ourselves looking for things we had in common, as if we were genetically related. That made everyone laugh.

None of us could believe that we had found each other after 24 years. Penny and I have stayed in regular contact. She is working three waitressing jobs while she decides what she wants to do with her life. I hope to visit them all in Canada in the next couple of years.

I have no children of my own, so in a strange way I feel as if I have found something akin to a long-lost daughter. I often complain about social media and how everyone is buried in screens instead of engaging with the real world. But I have to acknowledge that Little Penny would never have found me were it not for Facebook.

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