Thursday, October 07, 2010

In the Name of the Father

Having chosen a name, my wife and I went to District Office to register our son's birth. And of course, we immediately ran into difficulties.

I believe that the children of some male foreigners in Korea take their father's surnames, so I didn't think we were treading entirely new territory with our decision to give our son a Korean first name and my Western surname. However, the first employee at the District Office said that she didn't know how to enter it into the computer. A supervisor was called, but he didn't know either.

Specifically, the problem related to our desire to register my son's first name in Chinese characters. This would be fine for 'the computer' if his surname had Chinese characters, but it only has the Korean character transliteration of the Western surname. Picking Chinese characters for names is hard, and I don't have a Chinese version of my surname. So 'the computer' said no.

We'd actually gone to the District Office to do two things - register our son as an individual and add him to our family register. The computer allowed his name to be added to the family register, but it wouldn't allow the individual registration. While this might at least seem like some sign of social progress - it probably isn't; when I got married my wife was designated as the head of our household, so I believe the computer allowing the family registration has more to do with her being Korean than any anything else. The staff told us they would have to consult their regional office for guidance, and we left without registering our son's birth.

It's not the first time I've encountered the 'computer says no' problem here due to my being a foreigner, and I'm sure it won't be the last. I used to be a computer programmer and I know that all you do when you write a program is take a snapshot of your own world view and create something which makes the computer behave the same way.

Later came the phone call from the Regional Office. Along with the 'computer says no' syndrome, my patience for Korea's passive-aggressive 'it-would-be-better-if' society is beginning to wear pretty thin as well, so the caller's suggestion that "it would be better if" we dispensed with the Chinese characters for my son's first name - rendering it without meaning - did not go down very well. Neither did the bizarre but apparently legal suggestion that he have a Korean surname on his Korean passport and a Western surname for his British one. The elephant in the room of that conversation seemed to be - thankfully left unspoken - that actually it would be better if my son just had a Korean surname.

When my wife thoroughly rejected this proposal, it was then - and only then - that the unknown official said that it could be done our way by registering the name in Korean characters and adding the Chinese characters for his first name later in some official way. It does nothing to alleviate my sense that the bureaucracy here is continually trying to beat people into homogeneous submission and only gives in to diversity when all else has failed.

That said, I'm not a big fan of multiculturalism as a national policy. In my country it became the equivalent of inviting a homicidal maniac to stay with you in your house, and an incredibly boorish homicidal maniac at that. And while the leaders of my city perpetuated the big lie of multiculturalism, it was never multicultural - it was just increasingly bipolar, like - I suspect - many of its residents. But Korean politicians talk a lot about multiculturalism these days like it's a good thing. I'm not saying it won't be in Korea, but they haven't experienced what I've experienced. However, on a personal level - and this is the unavoidable paradox - my son will grow up in a multicultural environment, and while I think every native-English speaker who expects Korea to bend over backwards for them should be sent back home never to return, I draw the line at my son's name. He is half-Korean, half-English, and as much as a name reflects a more fundamental identity, I want that identity to reflect his twin heritages. I guess that's where I draw the line. This probably isn't going to get any easier.


Chris in South Korea said...

You're a pioneer, Mike - on the bleeding edge of things. The problems of 'the computer says no' is definitely a sign that they haven't had to change. Remember that old saying about a caterpillar and a butterfly? Until it's more painful to stay the same, they have no reason to change.

Keep persisting buddy.

Mike said...

Thanks, but the thing is, I really don't think I'm doing anything pioneering here - rather I believe I'm treading along a well-worn path that many foreigners before me have gone down. It's entirely possible that I might have been the first foreign man with the baby surname issue some of the staff at my local 'gu' office have had to deal with, but if it's true that the computer system is to blame I imagine the issue might be more widespread.

I thought we'd got there in the end, but an hour ago the paperwork was delivered from the office and the baby's surname on it is one syllable of my surname, followed by a space, and the other syllables, which makes his surname appear to be just that syllable, and these orphaned syllables look like a middle name, or part of the first name. There seems to be a clarification elsewhere, but I just don't know what to make of it. Just have to laugh about it all I guess.

Mosher said...

Hey Mike. Somewhat unrelated issue, but a) just wanted to let you know I still read the posts, even if I don't talk much and b) to let you know that a mate of mine recently got married to a lovely Vietnamese woman in Hanoi.

That's the good bit. The downside if they tried to organise a visa so she could visit the UK to see her husband's family and... surprise. Rejected. After spending a small fortune etc.

Sounds like a familiar story, doesn't it :(

Mike said...

Hello Mosher - yes, sadly it does sound like a very familiar story. I hope your friend is coping with the decision, I know that being prevented from returning to live in your homeland is a life-changing decision. Even being denied the right to have your wife meet her in-laws is a clear violation of the European Convention on Human Rights - if there is no good reason for preventing entry - and as we know, often the reasons used are tenuous, or even falsified on the official record as in our case. I dream of the day someone has enough money to hold these officials and their political masters to account for their illegal actions and send a message to everyone else that they can not hide behind their status as Government employees and use it to knowingly break European laws.

If he wants to contact me, I'd be happy to pass on the benefits of my experience in fighting a legal case against the British Government. A decent judge will find these people have acted 'contrary to law' as was the ruling in our case. Unfortunately, it won't stop them doing it again and the legal costs will likely be a good four-figure sum, so even if people win, they lose quite badly financially. And this is what the Government relies on - the better off can afford to fight for justice and write off the costs, but the less well off are at a severe disadvantage.

That this campaign of visa harassment should be implemented under a Labour Government is all the more shocking and disappointing.

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