Friday, October 01, 2010

Your Name Here

It's normal for Westerners to name their children once they are born - or even before. In fact, the traditional Catholic dogma of my upbringing almost demands it insofar as an unchristened babies are left in limbo, or at least they used to be until the infallible Church changed its mind three years ago. But leaving organised religion aside, it seems sensible that a baby should have a name, rather than simply being 'the baby' or any other range of personal pronouns.

This is not the traditional Korean way. The foetus is given a nickname which often sticks until a name is chosen two or more weeks after the baby is born, which is when the advice of a fortune-teller/Chinese character naming specialist is sought - they suggest the most fortuitous names, and how to write them in Chinese, based on the baby's date and time of birth, and the father's surname. You can't know some of these things until after the birth, ergo it is impossible to properly name the child beforehand.

Choosing a Surname

The first problem to be tackled was the thorny subject of the surname. Korean family names almost always one-syllable whereas my Irish one has four and consists of eight characters. This causes problems within Korea's bureaucracy because it doesn't always fit into databases which were designed exclusively for homogeneous domestic use. And if my son was to inherit my family name we feared it would really mark him out as a non-Korean, and only add to the problems he's likely to face growing up here. On the other hand we knew he was going to have to live with being different - it wasn't as though the surname was the only issue. An additional complication was that unlike the Western tradition, wives don't take on their husbands' surnames in Korea and neither did mine. So perhaps someone was going to feel left out one way or the other.

We made the decision to keep my surname, and choose a Korean first name. This condemns our son to having an impossibly long name by Korean standards, but on the plus side if he ever gets conscripted he probably won't be chosen for dangerous missions, because by the time they've called out his name the war will be over.

Choosing a First Name

I believed choosing the first name would be the easier decision. It wasn't, and not just because of the need to consult a fortune-teller/naming specialist whose decision we didn't want to be beholden to. We needed a name that my wife felt was a good Korean one, and which was relatively easy to pronounce for my relatives back home. It needed to be non-embarrassing if our son ever lives in the West, which ruled out a lot of 'hos' and 'suks' amongst others. It needed to be modern, which seemed to dash my hopes of naming my son after a famous Korean physicist on the principle that it was something more to aspire to than the usual bland meanings behind Korean names such as 'noble' or 'heroic'.

I tried to do some research but apparently Western websites mainly list Korean baby names which most Koreans have never heard of or find laughable. We spent six months before the birth gathering ideas but nothing leapt out at us and we had to wait for the naming specialist's suggestions anyway.

Korean Mother Comes Down From the Mountain

Then a few days after my wife gave birth I was sat at my desk when Korean Mother entered the room and announced a new name I hadn't heard before. I assumed it was just another idea but then she came back shortly afterwards with it written down. She repeated it verbally, pointing out while doing so the corresponding Korean characters which I was perfectly capable of reading on my own. It seemed to have come from Korean Father down in Namhae. The mood had changed. There was something serious about this. It was as though she'd just come from from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments on stone tablets and put them in front of me.

I didn't really know what she was getting at, but what irked me was that the name was written as my wife's Korean surname followed by the newly chosen first name. My surname was nowhere to be seen. I suddenly wondered whether to her, this was going to be his name, and this is what she'd be calling him, possibly along with everyone else. It's bad enough that my own identity is being eroded here, without watching my son's vanish before my eyes. I gave her my best "thanks but don't call us, we'll call you" look, and in return I got the "I find your lack of faith disturbing" face back. I texted my wife in hospital.

Our Plan Versus What Actually Happened

So here is what we planned to happen. When my wife finally escaped the hospital we would go see a fortune-teller, get a handful of suggestions based on the specifics of our baby's date and time of birth, and then we choose one of them, or something else entirely. It's the well-worn path a friend who has just given birth went down.

Here is what actually happened. Korean Father recruited an allegedly famous fortune-teller from his social network to do his thing and we got one name back - and only one - and this is the name that had landed on my desk. Through being a police officer, Korean Father knows some... interesting people, so, given that the name of our child is quite important, I just wanted to check how he knew the naming specialist. Well, yes, he had been in prison. OK, but at least tell me it wasn't for fraud I asked half-jokingly. Sure enough... But my wife liked the name anyway.

Several hours later two friends of ours visit the hospital and out of nowhere, and apparently on the spur of the moment while brainstorming, one of them suggested two names that I actually rather liked. In fact one of them seemed rather clever because it's a fusion of the Korean words for 'Korea' and 'England' and it's actually used as a real Korean name, although my wife feels it lacks the levity of the fortune-teller's option, and it might be a little old fashioned. Anyway, I'm in no position to decide on the suitability of a first name.

But we knew that if we chose the fortune-teller's singular suggestion then we'd always have the vague feeling that he named our baby, not us. If we didn't choose it, every time our son suffers a misfortune it's possible that my wife is going to think that somehow it might not have happened if we'd chosen the right name for him. In other words, the moment that name landed on my desk it was probably a done deal.

We decided to consult another naming specialist to try and break the spell, but I'm not sure this was entirely to Korean Mother's approval. An animated discussion on the subject took place in my wife's room at the hospital and although I didn't think Korean Mother was particularly happy I didn't read too much into it because honestly, Busan people can talk about what they had for lunch and make it sound like an international crisis. But here's the thing. I'd spent a lot of one-to-one time with Korean Mother since my wife went into hospital and we became something of a double act as we laughed our way from one attempt to communicate to the next. Walking home together after the hospital that night was no laughing matter, because it was in total silence.

The second naming specialist provided us with ten additional suggestions, and also told us that the name recommended by the first specialist was "no good". But predictably most of the new names could be immediately ruled out for incompatibility with English or English pronunciation. And my wife still liked the original name, so it stuck.


Just as we accepted our son's new name in our mind, it turned out that Korean Father had given the wrong time of birth to the first naming specialist, potentially changing the baby's fortune and rendering the name inappropriate. But Korean Father didn't want to contact him again to tell him because of the loss of face this would involve, which left us at an impasse. My wife eventually got in touch with the specialist to be told that the hour difference "didn't matter".

But somewhere quite far along the way it had also become apparent that the chosen name - and its 'flow' of strokes in Chinese characters, was in any case based on the incorrect premise of my son having my wife's Korean surname. Since this wouldn't be the case, it rendered the whole process suspect at best.

And that's the story of how I set out with aspirations of naming my son after a famous scientist and actually finished up having him named by a convicted fraudster.


Anonymous said...

My boss's wife once told me the story of how her son was named. He (age 13, been in the US since age 4) was aghast; apparently he had never heard it. His said, incredulous: "you let someone else name me?!" Mom assured him that no, she had been given several choices, and picked the one she liked: Dong-Jun. Since he was the first grandson on his father's side, all his male cousins which followed were also Dong-Something. While I found this limiting for them, my boss's wife was equally appalled at the Western tradition of naming boys after their fathers. One of my co-workers recently had a daughter here in the US; he and his Korean wife named her You-Hwa, a combination of his name (Kang-You) and hers (Myung-Hwa). This break with naming tradition seemed to horrify the other Koreans I work with. Long story short, I can understand your difficulty in trying to adequately represent such diverse cultures ... best of luck to you all.

Mike said...

Thanks - and yes, it certainly is a minefield. I was supposed to have a different first name to the one I have, but my father was sent to the office to register my birth and instead of following my mother's orders he returned having named me after himself - which had become something of a family tradition (one I've now broken). At least Western names aren't heavily stooped in superstition in the way Korean names are - so you make a choice and if bad things happen to you afterwards that's just life - not bad naming or Chinese character selection.

When my son grows up he'll learn about the story of how he was named, and the other choices we had, and I wonder what he'll make of it all. Will he think other options were better, will he resent the problems his Western surname will bring? I came out of this process thinking there were no easy answers.

Chris in South Korea said...

"I'm in no position to decide on the suitability of a first name."

Yeah, that sounds like the position to take... Offend the family and you'll find yourself getting the cold shoulder in every possible way.

As far as the military service goes, they'll probably end up transliterating it based on how they read it in English - meaning it would end up in the Korean alphabetical order according to the transliteration. Might want to see where it ends up, not that you'll have to worry about that for awhile...

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