FROM READERS: What is that on his back?

Monday, March 24, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 11:44 a.m. CDT, Monday, March 24, 2014
Johnny Eblen always wears the yin and yang, as well as his last name in Korean.

Ilhyung Lee is professor of law at MU. His son was a member of the 14U Columbia Phoenix baseball team last summer.

What do Hunter Hess, a freshman at California High School (in Moniteau County, southwest of Columbia) and Johnny Eblen, a junior at the University of Missouri, have in common? They are both student-athletes in mid-Missouri with a passion for their respective sport.


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Hess has been playing baseball since he was five years old, and is a member of his high school’s baseball team in California, Mo., this spring. Eblen is further along in his sport; a state wrestling champion while at Park Hill High School in Kansas City, he currently competes for Coach Brian Smith’s Missouri wrestling team. Nationally ranked in the 184-pound weight class, an injury cut short Eblen’s season.

They both have something else in common. Hess has a jersey from his competitive baseball team last summer, with his last name – Hess – in Korean; Johnny Eblen’s surname, also in Korean, is tattooed on his back. For each, the name in Korean characters is a transliteration, that is, the way the name in English would be written in Korean, phonetically.

Just above Eblen’s Korean name appears a half-Korean and half-U.S. flag in the yin and yang, which he got “to express my ethnic background.” Eblen’s mother is originally from South Korea, where she met Eblen’s army father when he was stationed there.

Hess was a member of the 14U Columbia Phoenix baseball team last summer. It was the team’s head coach, Kendall Lewis, who came up with the idea of having an official team jersey with the team name on the front, and the player’s surname on the back – both in Korean characters.

Suhwon Lee, the mother of one of the boys on the team, produced all of the players’ names in Korean. “Transliteration is not an exact science, and two Korean people might not write the same American name exactly the same way. But you try to get it as close as possible,” she said.

Lee elaborated, “The ‘Witting’ name was easy to convert because the Korean version sounds almost exactly the same as the name in English. But ‘Kleindienst’ was a challenge, and the longest.” The Korean for “DiStefano” and “Fordyce” are loose approximations because there is no “f” sound in the Korean phonetic alphabet.

For both Eblen and the Phoenix juniors, what appears on their backs is a conversation piece. People ask Eblen, “What does it say?” and “What does it mean?”

Janice Fordyce, of Fulton, whose son Josh played on the Phoenix team, said that her son “just loves that shirt.” Another parent, Joe Witting, of Boonville, added, “I wish when I was 14 someone would have given me a gift like that.”

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.

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