Tuesday, November 23, 2010


A few weeks ago I ran into problems registering my son's name with the local district office, and I said it wasn't likely to be the last time having a multicultural child was going to cause problems in Korea. Well I didn't have to wait long for the next issue to raise its head – our son's health insurance bills have arrived and because his Irish surname takes up four Korean character spaces (it's four Western syllables), there was only one character space for his first name rather than two – so he's lost the last syllable of his name. I should have seen this coming because – with my middle name - only the first syllable of my surname appears on my health registration – and this is how I get called out in the hospitals.

This can't be good because when it comes to dealing with officialdom in any country – and I know Korea isn't different – it's quite important to maintain a consistent identity across systems otherwise computers and bureaucrats start to insist that you are not the same person. And when computers start thinking you are different people, the complications can just multiply. Since my son is more Korean than I am – and he'll have to grow up here - I see how it could be a particularly irritating problem for him.

My wife was not confident of our ability to get them to add the extra syllable to his first name, and neither was I because I kind of knew deep down – speaking as an ex-software designer myself - that some incompetent Korean software designer (I'm beginning to wonder if there is really any other kind) decided there was going to be a five-character limit in the database. Because, you know, Koreans don't have such long names and who else would ever be registered in the Korean health system except people with Korean names? Right? (For more on the Korean IT mentality - read this).

I found my wife's initial reaction very telling - “I feel bad now about giving him a strange name”. And that is the wrong answer. Your first reaction is supposed to be righteous indignation, otherwise you've fallen into their trap.

Korea keeps saying it welcomes a multicultural society so I think it would be better if they started planning for it rather than mysteriously thinking that Korea's future multicultural society will consist of people from lots of different countries all pretending they are Korean. Or does Korea really think all the foreigners are going to change their surnames to Kim? Don't answer that – they probably do.


adele said...

I totally understand where you're coming from Mike... Last month I was appalled to discover that on some of the official paperwork my husband had to fill in after our marriage, my name is written entirely in Korean characters!

I lived in China for five years and my Italian name was invariably used in all official documents (albeit sometimes spelled as one word to make up for the lack of available space).

My name and surname in Korean are a total of six syllables though, so I wonder why you were stuck with five only. Or maybe I'll soon find out that I have one syllable too many...

Better switch to my husband's last name. A small defeat for feminism, a huge step towards a more comfortable life in Korea.

Mike said...

Hello Adele - I think you'll find it easier to switch to your husband's last name, but what I've always worried about here in dealing with bureaucracy is the English idiom "Give someone an inch and they'll take a mile." In other words, once I make one concession over something important to me, then does it end there or is it just the first of many concessions? These little issues can wear you down and the comfortable option is tempting, but yes - the feminist movement may not be pleased! :-)

I don't know why I'm missing a syllable, but I have a middle name which pushes my total syllable count up to seven on official documents, and that might be it. It's been my experience though that bureaucrats here are rarely consistent, so sometimes I think people get different results depending on which office or which individual deals with their paperwork.

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