Tag Archives: Korea

Change Your Name, Change Your Life

31 Jul

There’s a saying among the expatriate community in Korea: “You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Kim, a Lee, or a Park.” So you would think there’s a lack of last names in Asia. The real reason is far more interesting.

I happened to pass a TV that was showing the LPGA tour. That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it. However, it showed the leader board and it showed the name of Jeongeun Lee #6… which having never watched ladies’ golf before struck me as rather bizarre, but not that unexpected. Turns out that even those she’s is the only Jeongeun Lee in the LPGA, in the Korean league, she was the 6th one, and established her brand as #6.

Twenty years ago, my first real job out of college was at Taejon Christian International School, an international boarding school in South Korea. It was actually a very nice place and I’ve gotten the impression that it has been getting nicer since I left. At the time, they hadn’t built the new dorm and school buildings, and there was a small woods (with houses) nearby in the land between it and the Hannam University.

This is where I ran into the fundamental problem of a lack of Korean names. I believe JeongEun means “grace,” which considering the massive Christian presence, doesn’t surprise me. I’ve run into several “Graces;” the habit among most international Korean students is that their family named their kids something that could be translated into English as well as Korean and mean precisely the same thing.

I love this statue in Daejeon – outside the soccer stadium.

As mentioned above, there’s mainly three last names, so to have six women named exactly the same in a pro sports league is not that surprising. This was not always the case. You can look back through Korean history and find all manner of last names.

Why the change? Because after being occupied by the Japanese for fifty years, the newly freed Koreans in 1945 had burned the official records. There was no paper trail to prove that you were who you said you were. So people started giving themselves royal names. Kim, Park, and Lee all dated back to the families of kings of a free and independent Korea. These peasants wanted to improve their life, so they changed their name. The only problem was that EVERYONE figured this out and did it roughly at the same time.

This is not that unusual. Many of the new Zionist settlers to Israel changed their name to something more Hebrew sounding to start a new life. I knew one friend whose ancestor moved to Yorktown, Virginia and took his wife’s name to forget his past. I knew one guy in college who changed his last name to Angel because… it sounded cool. (Angel was also a popular show on TV at that moment.)

Does changing your name really make that much of a difference in your life? Have you met people who did this? Ladies, did taking your husband’s last name (or not) lead to a change in how people perceived you? Let me know in the comments below?

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