Hubert? What does that mean in Korean?Grace, Patrick, Elizabeth, Jenny, Yuri and Mila don't sound like Korean names, but more Koreans are using names like them as nicknames. How do Koreans get them and why?
Well, is it so wrong for Koreans to use Western names? When an African or South American picks up a Western name it doesn't seem strange; but when Koreans do they're asking for it: "C'mon, you couldn't have been Steve when you were born.... What's your real name?"
Once in a while it can turn to criticism: "Why do you use a Western name? Why can't you accept yourself and your true identity?"
And Koreans brave enough to choose exotic names, like "Isabella," are really spoiling for the third degree: "Who gave you that name anyway? Do you know what your name means in Slavic?"
To understand the Korean mind-set when they go about picking a Western name, a little background on Korean tradition may help.
At birth, Koreans are given a name with significant and often poetic meaning. The senior members of a family endow a newborn with a name after a painstaking period of days or even months. Some families consult fortune-tellers to ascertain the most auspicious name out of the thousands of appellative possibilities. Though some names may sound unpleasant, the bearer will proudly explain how it's written in Chinese characters ?emphasizing that it's the meaning that matters, not the sound.
Korean names considered "good" usually represent poetic images like a blooming orchid, a great mountain, or a shining star, and sound dignified. "Not so good" names are those meant not necessarily for the child's welfare but the family's. For example, a girl's name, though it sounds ordinary, may mean, crudely put, "We'd better have a son next time."
Some pleasant-sounding names can portend bad luck, based on their Chinese characters. Names like that would prompt a fortune-teller to say, "I can see coffins in your name." Needless to say, considering Koreans' obsession with the fate implicit in names, the fortune-tellers exploit it to their advantage.
But the real fun begins when Koreans venture abroad. That's when they get a passport in which they need to write their first, middle and last names in Roman letters. Each component of the traditional three-syllable Korean name fits snugly into the three spaces. But even well-educated Koreans tend to lump their two given names together and put it in the first-name box. And anyone who's heard a teacher in the United States or Canada do a roll call in a class with Korean students knows how messy that can get. "Sang! Hee! Bum! Young! Chung! Sorry, which one is your last name? Which one is your first? What should I call you?"
If Koreans stick to their own names, they are often subjected to incessant wisecracks:
American: "Hi, I'm Maggie."
Korean: "I'm In."
American: "Yeah, I know you're in, but what's your name?"
Briton: "Hello, it's a pleasure meeting you. I'm Suzanna."
Korean: "Hello, I'm So-young."
Briton: "Yes, you're so young. I'm, nyuck-nyuck, so old."
The confusion can be quite frustrating in serious situations, like when Korean-American parents of a new baby are in the maternity ward.
Nurse: "What is the baby's name?"
Korean dad: "Seung-cheol."
Korean dad: "Seung-cheol."
Nurse: "How do you spell that?"
Korean dad: "S as in sun, e as in Emily, u as in U.S.A., n as in...
Nurse: "Hold on, S, and E ... and?"
Korean dad: "Never mind. He's John ?John Park.
But back to the subject ?Koreans who weren't born abroad. Many Koreans adopt Western names to express their affinity for Western culture. They consider themselves the pioneers of globalization who will build the bridges to connect ancient Korea with the entire world. Picking up a new, Western name can help them mold their own image of themselves and make their work more convenient, especially if they deal with overseas associates, like people who work for trading companies.
In general, Koreans choose common Western names that are easy for foreign associates and friends to remember and pronounce and are similar in some way to their Korean names. Sometimes they go with the English initials of their Korean names if they sound good, such as T.J. or B.K.
Many Korean Christians were christened with a Western name, and may use that; but even they tend to choose a different name, perhaps one that better resembles their Korean name. For example, Ae-kyung becomes Ann, Sang-woo becomes Sam and Sun-hee becomes Sunny.
Using Western names has one clear advantage for people in Asian countries who are trying to make their professional atmospheres more modern. Those casual nicknames enable people to skip using the honorifics that Asian languages typically require when a subordinate speaks to a superior. As a result, the working environment is more open to effective and efficient communication, which is one goal of most modern management strategies. More Koreans are encouraging their co-workers to call them by their Western names for just that purpose, to create a workplace with a flatter hierarchal structure.
But still, why complicate life with more than one name? The latest naming trend among parents is to consider Korean names that can work both ways, like Eugene, Sara, Jane, Earl, Juno and Hana.
On the other side, though, are the Koreans who prefer names that are ... way out there.
English teacher: "Did everyone do their homework over the weekend and choose new names like I told you to?"
Korean students: "Yes, we did."
English teacher: "Sun-mi, what is your new English name?"
Kim Sun-mi: "Helvetica Kim! You can call me Helen, too."
English teacher: "Mr. Lee, did you choose a new name?"
Lee Jeong-sik : "Yes. I'm Rodin Lee."
Deciding on a Western name can be easy if you happen to look like Jackie O. or a wolf
Jeanette Lee, 25, medical student, Yonsei University
"When my oldest brother was born in the United States, people mispronounced his Korean name Joo-Hwan as John, so my parents named him John. My other brother's name is James, and my parents wanted another name starting with 'J' for me. My parents named me after a nice nurse who helped deliver James. In my passport, Jeanette is my first name. My Korean name Joo-Min is my middle name and Lee is my last name."
Jackie Yang, 37, Korean language teacher
"One day one of my high school friends said, 'You look like Jackie O.' I didn't know who she was, so I went to a bookstore and found a picture of Jackie Kennedy. I liked her and the name, so I used it with English-speaking people because they couldn't pronounce my Korean name, Jin-sung, very well. They remember Jackie O., and Jackie has the same initial of my Korean name. And I like to think I dress like Jackie O., kind of classy."
Sugar Han, 43, P.R. manager, COEX Inter-Continental Hotel
"I love my nickname. It is very easy to remember, and the image is soft and sweet. My Korean name is Tae-sook. Koreans tack on the 'a' sound when they call a person, so I get called 'Sooga' all the time, which sounds like 'sugar.' My sister suggested that I use Sugar as my nickname. I began using Sugar in 1976 when I went to the Philippines to study. Even the janitors in college remembered my name!"
Paul Y. Ahn, 31, investment consultant, Hana Bank
"I was born in New York state. My family is Roman Catholic, so that explains the name Paul. My middle name, Yoon, is my mother's maiden name. I don't have an official Korean name, and people don't ask why I don't, perhaps because of my non-Korean appearance."
Jeneveieve Yoon, 22, student, Sogang University
"My real name is Yoo-hyun. When I was studying in Vancouver in 1991, nobody could pronounce my Korean name. I wanted to use 'Jenny' as a nickname, but it was too common. I wanted something unique. A French teacher suggested Jeneveieve. That way I could keep Jenny and still be different."
Lobo Lee, 33, producer, Baekdudaegan film company
"My name is Jun-young. My nickname in high school was Neukdae, which means wolf. I majored in Spanish in college. A professor told me Lobo was the main character of a Spanish comic book, 'Lobo the Wolf King,' and that Lobo was a special wolf that looked like a bull. And I'm really big and I sort of look like a wolf. Since 1989, I've kept that nickname."
Andre Kim, 65, fashion designer, Seoul
"Doesn't Andre symbolize many French artists? French people living in Korea suggested it. My real name is Kim Bong-nam."
Cecelia J. E. Park, 26, assistant marketing manager, TownMax
"My family is Catholic, and I was baptized 'Cecelia' at birth. I've used the name since I lived in Canada in 1997. At first I used my Korean name, Jung-eun, but teachers found it difficult. So I told them my Catholic name. Everything got much easier."
Poli Park, 39, police officer
"Park Hwa-jin is my name. For the World Cup, I was assigned to work in security. Foreigners often come to work with me, so I wanted a name that's easy to remember. I'm a cop, so I thought 'Poli.' Now foreigners know me as Poli."
by Inēs Cho
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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