What’s in a name? HeartbreakI don’t anticipate much from a blind date.
I’ve had enough of them to recognize that they aren’t an effective way to meet your significant other. But I still go on them from time to time for no particular reason.
Then, Sue Paik, a college friend of mine, said she’d fix me up with “Mr. Perfect.” What ensued made me wonder whether this blind date business was worth the effort ― particularly without knowing Mr. Perfect’s surname.
Sue said my suitor would call me at the office, so all I had to do was pick up the phone and chat long enough to decide where to meet.
That sounded easy enough to handle in the middle of newsroom duty, so I agreed. A half-hour later, he called.
What followed was typical introductory banter: “I heard so much about you from Sue, our mutual friend ...” and “Yes, isn’t she great?”
He might have heard a lot about me, but I didn’t know much about him. So, I asked his name. And when he told me, I replied casually, “How wonderful! You have the same name as my cousin.”
There was an uncomfortable silence.
Then, he asked me about the origin of my family name, and it turned out that we both belonged to the same clan ― Seo from Dalseong (though I spell my last name “Ser”).
He said he was looking for a serious relationship, one that included the possibility of marriage. “I’ll call back after thinking more about this blind date,” he said.
I never heard from him again.
It’s not like we would have broken a law. In fact, even if we had raced to the courthouse and registered to marry after that first, fabulous, unforgettable date, we still wouldn’t have violated Korea’s Civil Code.
But we would have broken social conventions.
Many Koreans still frown on the idea of marrying someone with the same surname from the same ancestral line, or dongseong dongbon, even though Korea’s Constitutional Court ruled in 1997 that the prohibition on marriage was “incompatible with the constitution.”
In its ruling, the court said that the National Assembly had until the end of 1998 to amend the law, Article 809 (1) of the Civil Code, or the ban on marriage within clans would “become null and void.”
The Assembly failed to act, effectively repealing a 690-year-old law that had first been codified in 1308 during the late Goryeo Dynasty.
Before permanently lifting the ban on Jan. 1, 1999, the government had twice temporarily lifted its prohibition, in 1978 and 1987. During those moratoriums, 17,020 couples registered their marriages.
Legal experts say that roughly 200,000 couples were affected by the ban’s repeal in 1999. Many had married before the ban was lifted but had never registered their unions officially.
The roots of the ban can be traced to Korea’s adherence to Confucianism, which considers all descendants with the same surname from the same place of origin as members of a single family.
Kim is the most common Korean surname, according to the National Statistical Office. More than 9.9 million are Kims, and they’re from at least 347 places.
Of the clans of Kims, the most famous is the Kimhae family; there are 4.1 million Kimhae Kims. Other Kims originated in Gapyeong, Gangneung, Gamcheon and elsewhere.
The second most commom surname is Lee ― nearly 6.8 million in Korea ― followed by Park, numbering nearly 3.9 million.
More than 20 million of South Korea’s 47 million citizens have one of three surnames. Those 20 million with the same surname have never been prohibited from marrying ― unless they were from the same clan.
For centuries, there were no exceptions to the clan rule, regardless of how remotely two persons were related.
In a country where one out of 10 people is a Kim from Kimhae, the ban put a serious damper on romance.
Even today, conservative Confucians argue that the marriage ban was commendable. Many say the law’s repeal should be reconsidered, saying that intermarriage will increase the number of genetic and medical disorders in Korean society.
Their worry is groundless, counters Kim Tak, a gynecologist at Korea University Medical Center. The probability of two unrelated people having a baby with a genetic abnormality is 1 in 4,000, and the chance is 1 in 1,024 among fourth cousins, Dr. Kim says.
“Thus, in terms of probability, a marriage between two persons who are more distantly related than third cousins is hardly different from a marriage between two unrelated persons,” Dr. Kim says.
However, he notes that the probability for a genetic disorder among third cousins is dramatically higher ― 1 in 256 ― which is why the law still forbids marriages between third, second and first cousins.
Since the ban was lifted in 1999, an increasing number of people with the same surnames are getting married. Some 498 couples with the same family name married in 1999; the next year it was 848, and 906 wed in 2001.
A recent poll conducted by a matchmaking company, Sunwoo, found that 67 percent of single Koreans in their 20s and 30s support marriages between people with the same surname and family origin.
Park Young-jun and Park Ji-young, both 28, are among that group. They have been going out for nearly seven years and are considering getting married this autumn.
“My parents really didn’t say anything about Ji-young having the same surname,” says Mr. Park.
He and Ji-young are both Parks from Milyang.
According to the National Statistical Office, 3.03 million Koreans have the surname Park of Milyang. They account for nearly 7 percent of Korea’s population.
“Ji-young’s parents didn’t object that I was a Park from Milyang, so we really didn’t have to struggle as many people do,” Mr. Park recounts.
The couple met on a blind date in 1996 when they were students. They were aware of the ban on marriage, but didn’t give it serious consideration because they weren’t even sure if they’d like each other. But as time passed and they fell in love, they started to worry about the future.
“I was so worried that I couldn’t eat or sleep, just thinking that our marriage wouldn’t be legal in our home country,” says Mr. Park. “I was seriously considering emigrating to the United States.”
He had just finished telling his brother about his fears one hot night in July 1997 when he flipped on the television. “Just as I turned on the TV on, the news about the constitutional court’s decision was being aired,” he says. “It was a thrilling moment. I knew we were destined to love and be together.”
They are fortunate. Park Hyun-seok, 30, lost his fiancee because his parents refused to accept her ― she, too, was a Park from Milyang. Mr. Park says he really loved his fiancee, but there was nothing he could do to change his parents’ minds.
“Even if I had disobeyed my parents and married her, my folks would have never accepted her as a family member,” Mr. Park says. “We would have felt guilty for the rest of our lives. Our children would have suffered. Who would want that burden?”
Mr. Park met his fiancee at an alumni gathering at their former elementary school in 1999. They hadn’t known each other as children, but something clicked when they met at the reunion.
“At first sight, we fell in love,” he says. “We went out for about a year. Our relationship was a serious one.”
The courtship continued until Mr. Park told his parents that he was dating a girl whom he planned to marry. He told them her name and his mother asked, jokingly, if their families had the same family root.
“When I said ‘yes,’ their faces suddenly darkened,” Mr. Park recalls. “I thought my parents were modern, but they weren’t. I never expected such strong opposition.”
After struggling with his parents for half a year, Mr. Park and his girlfriend decided their union wasn’t meant to be. It was a heartbreaking mutual decision, he says, because they recognized the problems they faced.
“I was afraid that she would be hurt, but she was facing the same problems that I did at her home,” Mr. Park says.
“It came down to choosing between her or my parents, and I chose my family,” he says. “I just hope that other people don’t have to make this agonizing decision, because I still wonder if I did the right thing.”
No woman that Mr. Park has since met has been “Ms. Perfect.”
by Ser Myo-ja