Thoughts on non-Koreans adopting Korean names

This is a topic that’s made me scratch my head for a while now and I’m not entirely sure about it. Over the years, I’ve come across many non-Korean-heritage learners who have adopted a Korean name and introduce themselves in class and to their native Korean friends using that name. Usually it’s a Korean-sounding name or a Korean name that carries the same meaning as their given name. I myself have been asked by my Korean instructor several times if I go by a Korean name or if I want to make one up.

Acknowledging the fact that I’m not Korean and thus can’t know an ethnic Korean person’s perspective, I’ve always found this practice weird and kind of offensive.

For me, a name has always been more than just a name. My name is a tie to my Indian heritage — a tenuous connection to my extended family with whom I share very little in common now and a relic of the religion I was brought up with (archana is a specific type of Hindu prayer). For years, I thought about changing my last name because I hated  Tamil Nadu’s practice of using the patronymic as a family name (more on this here), which was constant reminder of the extreme patriarchal thinking and misogyny rampant in my family. And in America, for better or worse, every mispronunciation of my name is a reminder of my otherhood — and yet I refuse to come up with a Starbucks name. Why should I, when the West continues to appropriate and capitalize on Indian culture?

In other words, names come with baggage. Even if I were to permanently immigrate to Korea, I could never casually adopt a Korean name because I don’t know what it’s like to carry that baggage. For example, I was weirded out when a Korean friend of mine told me about what an American acquaintance of hers did: he married a Korean woman and both of them adopted a random a Korean last name that their children would later take on. Even though she was impressed by the guy’s decision, it felt too much like cultural appropriation to me. That said, regardless of my feelings on the topic, could there be a scenario in which adopting a Korean name not only makes sense, but would be considered a courtesy to native Koreans?

I know many Asians who come to reside, work, and/or study in the West adopt Western names for the sake of convenience or so they can avoid hearing their name horribly botched over and over again. A lot of this is rooted in Western imperialism, which has turned English communication into a survival skill; sadly, not choosing a ‘White’-sounding name can even be detrimental to your success in the West.

If Koreans (or anyone with a non-Western name) feel that they can only be successful in an English-speaking country by adopting an English-sounding name, shouldn’t foreigners in Korea do the same?

My language teacher pointed out that in a country full of immigrants, like America, there’s enough diversity that even if people botch non-Western names, they’re at least unfazed by it. But because Korea is relatively homogeneous, having a name that is difficult to pronounce can inconvenience yourself and others around you in non-insignificant ways; some official forms for example, can’t accommodate names that are longer than 3 or 4 characters.

If you’re living and working in Korea, is it a form of arrogance to insist on having people call you by your “difficult” name? Aren’t you just acting like a special snowflake, constantly correcting/reminding everyone about your name? Isn’t conforming to cultural expectations a way to show respect for that country’s conventions? I don’t know.

I’m curious to know if any of you have an opinion one way or another on this. Is it courteous to adopt a Korea name if you’re a foreigner living in Korea? Should Korean learners adopt a Korean name from the outset? Is it offensive no matter what?

10 thoughts on “Thoughts on non-Koreans adopting Korean names

  1. My given name is Alfred, which I always hated and went by Al. At some point my wife (who is Brazilian) started calling me Kiko, and it stuck.
    Now Kiko in Brazil can be a nickname for Francisco, which is somewhat bewildering. For Koreans this is a Japanese girl’s name, hilarious for a male sexigenarian. Most of my friends are either Brazilian or Korean, who tend to butcher “Al” into an incomprehensible bit of noise. Brazilians may call me “Alfredo” or “Alfre-gee”, but Koreans would go wild turning Alfred into 6 or 7 syllables. Hence – I’m Al with family and at work, but Kiko with friends. And I like it.
    Names are special things, very personal. I will call you whatever you wish, but please help me with the pronunciation! ~kiko

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, thanks to the globalization, I believe that even south korea, which is one of the most homogeneous countries, has familarized itself with foreign names. They just call it with korean pronunciation though. I think it would be perfectly acceptable to use your own name in korean pronunciation; and if it’s too long you can perhaps shorten it to three or five syllables (in Korean).

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  3. This is news to me, I’m used to others changing their names to fit a “Western” standard of non-botched names (if that makes sense). I have an uncle who changed his last name to Thompson when he moved to the U.S and friends who changed their names to fit in, in school, but I’ve never heard someone change their name to a Korean one. It’s intriguing to say the least, but I don’t find it offensive. Then again, it isn’t really my place. As long as it’s not on impulse it’s fine.

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  4. Interesting post. I’m a Westerner living in Korea and I find that my real name Sofie is hard for Koreans to pronounce since the Korean language lacks an f sound. Most people would then call me Sopi, which directly translated means cow blood. Not charming at all. A Korean friend of mine then suggested that I take the common Korean name Sohee, which sounds similar to my actual name and at the same time is well-known to Koreans. Whenever I use this name Koreans always smile and tell me that it suits me. They always seem happy that I’ve made it easier for them to say my name and it makes me feel like I fit in. I never felt like this would be cultural appropriation, but I totally support that everyone should do what feels right to them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Interesting – when I went to Seoul my tourguide said her name was Sofia, she was trying to be friendly to an American I think. I refused to call her that, and used her given name (기정) although Sofia is a pretty name too. But she still called me 키코. :0)

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  5. (For context, American living in Korea here) I have two Korean names but I never use them. One of them was given to me by the mother of one of my close friends, and one by the mother of my boyfriend, so both of them are pretty meaningful. My boyfriend’s mother only calls me the name she gave me now, and I only ever use my first Korean name with the old man who runs the dry cleaner down the street because he explicitly told me that my name is too long for him and asked if I had a Korean name he could write me down as instead. I would never just go and introduce myself unprompted using a Korean name—I have my own perfectly good name, and I think it would be a bit odd to stick a very Korean name to very not-Korean me. Of course, this is just how I feel and what I chose to do. Obviously, my friend’s mother and boyfriend’s mother and the nice dry cleaner grandpa don’t mind foreigners with Korean names, but it feels unusual to me. I can also understand why some people might feel uncomfortable with non-Koreans taking Korean names, like just sort of making one up or picking one off the internet or something. I’m curious as to how the majority of Koreans feel about this too.

    On the other side of the coin, concerning the practice of giving English names to English learners here in Korea, I make sure to use my students’ real names. I don’t want them to feel like they have to have an English name to participate in English language culture and be good at English and be accepted as an English speaker. Once, at the start of a winter camp program, my coteacher wanted to give all the kids English names and asked me to write two lists, one for boys and one for girls, of English names they could choose from. It felt so disgusting to me and that was the first and last time I did something like that.

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  6. If youre living and working in Korea I could understand a native Korean name, but when people are just learning the language I dont understand. I know from my mom that her name has like, familial ties and meaning, so its not like in the west where people usually just choose a nice name for a kid. I dont choose a korean name and I dont take my moms name, because it just feels wrong for me to do.

    Liked by 1 person

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