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?

That poem in ‘Because This Is My First Life’

There are a lot of reasons I loved Because This Is My First Life. Like, a lot.

One of them is Jiho’s penchant for making literary allusions and using extended metaphors to express her complicated thoughts and feelings. This was a nice bit of character development, I thought; even though Jiho doesn’t work as a writer for a good chunk of the show, that side of her still comes through to the viewer.

There are two main works which Jiho alludes to in the show. One of them is the poem <방문객> (“The Visitor”) by Korean poet 정현종. The poem appears in his 2009 anthology <섬> (Island).

first-life-4

방문객

사람이 온다는 건
실은 어마어마한 일이다.
그는
그의 과거와 현재와
그리고
그의 미래와 함께 오기 때문이다.
한 사람의 일생이 오기 때문이다.
부서지기 쉬운
그래서 부서지기도 했을
마음이 오는 것이다―그 갈피를
아마 바람은 더듬어볼 수 있을
마음,
내 마음이 그런 바람을 흉내낸다면
필경 환대가 될 것이다.

The Visitor

The coming of a person
is, in fact, a tremendous feat.
Because he
comes with his past and present
and
with his future.
Because a person’s whole life comes with him.
Since it is so easily broken
the heart that comes along
would have been broken ― a heart
whose layers the wind will likely be able to trace,
if my heart could mimic that wind
it can become a hospitable place.

[I’m appending a million caveats onto this translation because I feel that translating poetry is sacrilegious unless you truly, truly understand the nuances of the language and the cultural/historical context of the poet — neither of which I can claim to be any kind of expert on… and yet here I am. I did read a few analyses of this poem; while my translation is a little graceless, I think it gets across the main point of poet. Take it with a grain of salt, use with caution, etc. etc.]

For what I know of the poet (Romanized as Chong Hyon-jong), his works reflect the challenges of connecting with oneself and others during this age of materialism, but mostly end on an uplifting note.

The titular poem, for example, poignantly captures this sentiment with just two lines:

사람들 사이에 섬이 있다.
그 섬에 가고 싶다.

Island

There are islands between people.
I want visit that island.

Because This Is My First Life isn’t only about marriage and love in the modern age (though it does do an amazing job at addressing that). Like these poems, I think the show as a whole tries to capture the profundity of human interaction. Knowing oneself isn’t easy. Knowing others is almost impossible. But despite this, the fact that humans are able to come together and communicate and coexist is a truly tremendous feat. Everyone comes with their own ‘baggage’ — their own past, their own present, their own future. It’s not something to downplay or ignore. To accept them as a person is to accept all of their weight; that, perhaps, is the best comfort that one human being can offer another.

육예 – The Six Arts

I’ve learned a lot about Korean Confucianism reading <성균관 유생들의 나날>. The main point being, everything academicincluding the meritocratic Joseon governmentwas rooted in the teachings of Confucius (공자). Even “extracurriculars,” like archery had deep philosophical meaning.

대사례 [大射禮], for example, was a ceremonial archery demonstration that scholars partcipated in alongside the King. The act of doing archery alongside the King, after having passed the civil service examinations, was supposed to further cultivate and reaffirm one’s class and rank.

yeorim-sungkyunkwan-scandal
Sungkyunkwan Scandal‘s Yeorim (Song Joong-ki) during Dae Sa Rae.

In fact, there’s a part in <성균관 유생들의 나날> where the main character, our cross-dressing female scholar Yoonhee, gets huffy about practicing archery. Sunjoon replies:

“활쏘기는 선비라면 반드시 익혀야 하는 육예 중 하나요. 우선 바른 자세를 만들어 주고, 그와 함께 정신도 가다듬게 하오. 이것을 거치지 않는다면 활을 쏠 이유가 없소.” (p. 255)

Archery, he says, is part of 육예, and therefore something all scholars must be familiar with.

육예[六藝] literally translates to the Six Arts. (You can intuit the meaning easily given the Hanja. is 여섯 륙/육 and  is 예술 예.)

The Six Arts were the six main “subjects” that made up a proper Confucian education:예학 (ceremonial rites), 악학 (theory of music), 궁시(archery), 마술 (charioteering), 서예 (calligraphy), and 산학 (mathematics). Those who mastered all six arts were known as 군자[君子]a gentleman, or man of virtue.

The novel mentions calligraphy and archery, and eventually the four main characters also form a mathematics club (which becomes a big deal because it includes members across political factions.) But I haven’t read our main characters having to deal with any of the other 육예 yet.

Given that pretty much everything that the scholars did had something to do with Confucianism, I wonder if there’s some deep philosophical explanation of 장치기 (a street hockey-type sport from Joseon Korea which the main characters play in the novel) or was that something that people maybe actually played for fun?

I still can’t believe that <성균관 유생들의 나날> was one of the first Korean novels I ever bought back when I started learning the language seven (!!!) years ago. It’s taken me years to get to a point where I can not only comfortably read it, but also research the things I don’t know and learn from them. Ugh, now I just want to keep reading historical novels forever!

(Header: 송풍수월 )

The thing about 책임감

Let’s talk about 상류사회 (High Society).  That show should win some kind of award for creating two of the most precious side characters in a drama full of people I couldn’t care a whit about.  Changsoo and Jiyi’s flirtationship is, at least in the first six episodes (and honestly I don’t see myself continuing with this show in the future Edit: I am no longer following this show), everything that Joongki and Yoonha’s relationship is not.  It’s honest and transparent, a little bit silly and awkward and, golly, the characters actually communicate about their feelings and insecurities!  Go figure!!

Granted, I’m speaking from what I’ve seen of the Changsoo-Jiyi dynamics up till episode 6.  I’m sure the writers will screw it all up with stupid misunderstandings and heartbreak and such now that all the cute is out of the way.  I know their relationship is bound to have drama but it’s just a question of whether the characters suddenly devolve into frustrating idiocy or continue to communicate openly like they have thus far.  Please don’t ruin this couple, 작가님!

Anyway, I love this couple.  Certain silly, unrealistic K-drama lines still make me swoon on occasion (despite having a heart of ice, or so I’ve been told) and there was one such exchange between Changsoo and Jiyi in episode 5.

Jiyi says she knows he’s a “bad guy” – as in, he dates around without the intention of getting married.  She pouts and tells him not to do nice things for her because she’s starting to like him more and more.  They go back and forth a little and then…

High Society Ep 5
Image credit:  Dramabeans

창수:  이건 뭐냐?
지이:  좋아지고 있어요.  안 좋아하려고 했는데 넘 귀여워요.  
창수:  …
지이:  만나면 꿈 꾸는 것 같아요 […] 세상에 공짜는 없지만 사랑에 공짜는 있잖아요. 본부장님은 점점 좋아지는데 나는 점점 싫어져요. 이럼 안되잖아요.
창수:  넌 남자한테 책임감 끌어내는 능력이 있다?

Changsoo:  What are you doing?
Jiyi:  I’m starting to like you.  I wasn’t going to like you, but you’re so cute.
Changsoo:  …
Jiyi:  Going out with you is like being in a dream […] Nothing is free in life, but love is free, you know.  I’m starting to like you more and more, but I’m starting to hate myself more and more too.  That’s not okay, is it?
Changsoo:  You have a talent for dragging a sense of responsibility out of a man, you know?

책임감 is literally defined as a sense of responsibility.  Obligation.  Duty.  Those are words are associated with the different roles we play as a person i.e. my “duty” to my family as a daughter or sister, my “responsibility” as a tenant, my “obligation” to pay taxes as law-abiding citizen, fulfilling my duties at work and owning up to them, etc.

Perhaps it’s just me, but I rarely associate the word responsibility/obligation/duty with friends or lovers.  Is that individualistic Western thinking?  I will do things and act a certain way to my friends because I cherish them and care for them.  If they ask for help, I will always do my best to help them, but I don’t feel a sense of “responsibility” for them.  I do what I do for my friends out of love, but not responsibility.  I don’t see my friend and think, “I have a duty to do x or y for this person.”  I think, “I will do x or y for this person because I care for them.”

That’s not to say that love and responsibility are mutually exclusive!  But they certainly do not always overlap.

Maybe that’s why I’ve always been fascinated by the Korean concept of couples vowing to “take responsibility” for each other.  When you tell someone you love them, I guess it’s implicit that you will support each other come what may, etc. but (and this may just be me reading too much into it) there’s something deeply serious about the idea of having 책임감.  Taking responsibility for a person.  It’s something I would expect out of a marriage but not out of friendship or courtship; and yet, it is not unusual to hear Korean couples say “책임 질게” to each other.

To me, 책임 질게 connotes an earnestness, gravity, and a depth of love that’s lacking in a mere “I love you.”  These days, “I love you” is so overused it’s practically meaningless.

Now, I think the phrase is mostly used by the man and said to the woman in the relationship, though not always.  The feminist in me protests, “Men and women should be responsible for themselves!” but then I think, how truly comforting it must be to hear those words from a best friend or lover, regardless of your gender.  It’s like saying, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of everything.  Just depend on me.”

On those especially stressful days when you aren’t strong enough to take on the world, sometimes just hearing those words is enough to take the weight off your shoulders.

Buying and selling rice

I’ve said over and over again that it is impossible to truly understand the essence of a language without knowing a bit of culture and history.  Language is contextual.  An idiomatic phrase or saying that is difficult to remember because it seems “odd” might stick better if you understand its origins.  Such was the case for me with this particular idiom.

  • 쌀사다: to sell rice
  • 쌀팔다: to buy rice

My friend Kwang-im told me that in Korean, the phrase ‘to buy rice’ actually literally translates to ‘to sell rice.’  쌀을 팔다.  쌀 is rice and 팔다 is ‘to sell.’  I couldn’t really make head or tails of why this phrase would turn out this way.  It just seemed to be intentionally misleading!

Back in the day, rice was the most important crop/asset for any Korean family, especially farmers.  It was so critical to their survival that Koreans believed just the merest mention of “running out” of rice would infuriate the souls of their ancestors.  So, instead of saying you were going out to buy rice (implying that you had run out – gasp!), you’d say you were going to SELL rice.  Because you have so much excess rice that you need to get rid of some of it.  That’ll placate the ancestors!

There is also some speculation that class hierarchy and social standing might have lent itself to this phrase.  During the Joseon Dynasty and earlier, when Korea was chiefly an agrarian society, those who were in the position to sell rice could almost be considered almost nobility.  However, partaking in commercialism implied you were a merchant, which was still considered “low-class.”  So instead of saying outright that they were selling rice (쌀을 판다), merchants would say something like “I am buying money with rice” (쌀로 돈을 산다, which then becomes shortened to just 쌀을 산다).  So then from the merchant’s perspective, 쌀을 산다 actually means “I’m selling rice”; flip that around, and from the buyer’s perspective, 쌀을 판다 means “I am buying rice.”

Kind of confusing, but a very interesting redefinition of what it means to buy and sell something.  It makes a lot of sense if you think about money as a commodity to be bought and sold.  So when merchants say 쌀 산다 it’s like they mean “I have a lot of rice so I will BUY money with it.”  When buyers say 쌀 판다 it’s like they mean, “I have a lot of money so I will SELL it in exchange for rice.”

Now that my brain can interpret Korean in real-time (without first mentally translating into English, that is), reading language history and etymology stuff like this makes it easier for me to grasp less intuitive idioms.  Plus it’s super interesting!

(paraphrased from: source)

외눈박이 물고기의 사랑 – 류시화 시집

Way back when, I read a poem by Korean poet Ryu Shi-hwa.  My friend and language partner at the time, Kwang-im, suggested him when I was suddenly struck with the desire to read Korean poetry.  Now, I’m not inherently a lover of poetry but through my many years as a student of English literature (which came to an end right before college), I’ve managed to amass a few favorites.  Sylvia Plath, Edgar Allan Poe, T.S. Eliot, to name a few.  And, having scoped out as many poems as I can find by him, I can now add 류시화 to that list.  His poetry is simple, yet deep and ponderous at the same time.  A fellow poet describes Ryu’s poetry as such:

“류시화 시인은 일상 언어들을 사용해 신비한 세계를 빚어낸다.  바로 이 점이 그의 시의 중요한 미덕이다.” – 이문재 (시인)

Poet Ryu Shi-hwa evokes the mysteries of this world using everyday language.  This is the most significant virtue of his poetry.  – Lee Moon-jae (poet)

When I went to Korea back in September 2014, I was thrilled to finally add one of his anthologies to my Korean literature collection.

The title of this particular anthology translates to The Love of the One-eyed Fish.  The titular poem is actually one of my favorites.  This is the first half of it:

외눈박이 물고기처럼 살고 싶다
외눈박의 물고기처럼
사랑하고 싶다
두눈박이 물고기처럼 세상을 살기 위해
평생을 두 마리가 함께 붙어 다녔다는
외눈박이 물고기 비목처럼
사랑하고 싶다

<외눈박이 물고기의 사랑>에서

The poet wants to live and love like a one-eyed fish.  Why?  Because in order to live like a normal two-eyed fish, two one-eyed fishes have to stick by each others’ side and swim about together.  It’s a poem about longing for companionship in life.

In this particular anthology, and in most of his other works too, Ryu’s poems are rooted in nature.  Trees, birds, rain, fish, etc., sometimes anthropomorphized, nearly always complimented with a very human emotion or desire.  Nature and humanity are often inextricable.

여우와 여우 사이
별과 별 사이
마음과 마음 사이

그 사이가 없는 곳으로 가고 싶다

물과 물고기에게는 사이가 없다
바다와 파도에는 사이가 없다
새와 날개에는 사이가 없다

나는 너에게로 가고 싶다
사이가 없는 그곳으로

<여우 사이>에서

In this excerpt, the poet laments there being a “distance” between everything in the world – between vixens, between stars, between hearts.  But he soon realizes there are some things that are truly inseparable – there is no distance between fish and the water they swim in, between the ocean and its waves, between a bird and its wings.  Likewise, the poet wants to exist in a place where there will be no distance between himself and his lover.

What I love about Ryu’s poetry is how deeply I can feel in response to it.  Many of his poems are tinged with a wistfulness, a slight melancholy that makes you introspect on your own life, your own mistakes and regrets.  Every one of his poems has touched a visceral sadness within me.  But at the same time, they are not depressing.  Rather, they let you embrace and accept the emotion and move past it in some way.  Perhaps that’s just me.

소금별에 사는 사람들은
눈물을 흘릴 수 없네
눈물을 흘리면
소금별이 녹아 버리기 때문
소금별 사람들은
눈물을 감추려고 자꾸만
눈을 깜박이네
소금별이 더 많이 반짝이는 건
그 때문이지

<소금별>

Reading this one makes me think of Le Petit Prince.  You know that saying that says the saddest people smile the brightest?  That’s what I thought of when I read this poem.  This poem is for the people whose eyes shine bright with tears held back, because shedding them would mean shattering the illusion of contentment they’ve worked so hard to build.  Ah yes.