What’s in a name? – This past weekend I went on a “literary excursion” sponsored by the Korea Literature Translation Institute. We started out in Jeonju, stopped in Namwon, and then went on to Hadong. Along the way we visited a poet named Kim Yongtaek, stopped by the site of a setting mentioned in The Story of Chunhyang (a classical novel) and saw a recreation of the village and house mentioned in Land (a monumental modern Korean novel).
But that’s really just the background of what I want to write about today. We all wore really large name tags on strings around our necks, and one older man on the trip asked me if the name on my nametag was my “temporary name.” I gave him a strange look and asked him what he meant. The conversation went as follows.
“Well, do they call you that in the United States?”
“No, they call me by my English name.”
“So it’s just a temporary name that you are using while you are here in Korea.”
“Um, no. That’s a function of space, not time. Just because people don’t call me that in the States it doesn’t mean it stops being my name.”
That pretty much ended the conversation, but I could tell he wasn’t convinced. For my part, I was completely befuddled. I had never heard anyone refer to my Korean name as a “temporary name” before. I dismissed the idea at first, but it stayed in the back of my mind, and I guess I’ve been gnawing on it for most of the week. I’ve been thinking about names and permanence and all sorts of related issues, and today’s entry is going to discuss some of those issues (if only so I can get my thoughts sorted out and in writing). As usual, I promise no hard and fast answers.
I don’t remember exactly when I got my Korean name, but I don’t think it was too long after I arrived in Korea (maybe after a couple of years, maybe sooner). One of the reasons I wanted a Korean name was that I was getting kind of tired of Koreans not being able to pronounce my name (at least not to my satisfaction). More than that, though, was the way Western names often get massacred when transcribed in hangeul, the Korean writing system. There are names that seem particularly suited to hangeul transcription, but neither my first name nor my last name fall into that category. When I looked at my name written in hangeul, all I could think was, “That’s not my name. That may be a Korean approximation of my name, but that’s not my name.”
In a way, then, my Korean name sprung out of my own particular thoughts on what a name is and isn’t, and when a name stops becoming a name. In my eyes, the Korean approximation was far enough from what I considered to be my name to be a different entity entirely. This is something I’ll come back in a little bit—for now, I’ll continue with the story.
I did not end up choosing my Korean name. I wasn’t confident enough in my Korean ability at the time, so a pastor at my church chose my name for me. Rather than try to wrangle with meaning, he simply took my family name and Koreanized it. My family name is La Shure, and when funkified by hangeul it comes out to something like “ra-shyu-eo.” This is what I was sick of seeing, and this is what my pastor elegantly changed to “Na Su-ho,” giving me a Korean family name of “Na” (not too common, but you’ll find them here and there) and a given name of “Suho.” I later chose Chinese characters for this name that roughly mean “excellent heaven” (although it’s hard to give an exact translation).
This is not a typical Korean name, but I like that fact. For one, it stands out in peoples’ memories—once people hear my name, they do not easily forget it. It also has a positive nuance; “suho” can mean “guardian” in Korean, and even though these aren’t the characters I chose for my name (that would have been pretty cheesy), the positive connotation remains. I could have easily had a much more common name if I had just Koreanized my given name—Charles easily becomes Cheolsu. But Cheolsu is a very common name and (in my opinion) somewhat bland. I’m glad I got the name that I did.
New acquaintances will invariably ask me where I got my Korean name, and when I explain that it is a Koreanization of my family name, some of them make the mistake of assuming that it is my family name. Just the other day, in fact, I had some new classmates ask if they should call me by my full Korean name rather than just my given Korean name. If I considered my Korean name to be equivalent to my English family name, then splitting it up and only using the “Suho” part would be strange. But I consider my Korean name to be a completely separate entity. It may have originated with my family name, but it has become something different. Thus everyone close to me calls me Suho.
I had never really given the subject of names much thought, but this idea of a “temporary name” really got me thinking about it. Can someone have a temporary name? For that matter, what is a name? On the surface that question seems fairly simple: a name is what you call something. Or, to put it more academically, a name is “a word or a combination of words by which a person, place, or thing, a body or class, or any object of thought is designated, called, or known.” When put this way, it becomes apparent that the semantic domain of names covers almost all of human thought. It might be possible to contemplate certain relationships without resorting to names, but if you want to talk about things in relationships, names are indispensable.
Different people have different names for things. Even in the same language, different groups of people might call the same thing by different names. Take carbonated beverages, for example. Where I come from, these were known as “soda.” But ask a different group of people and you might hear it called “pop.” For this group of people, “soda” is what I would call an “ice cream soda.” People can get very territorial when it comes to dialectical differences in names, and many a pointless argument has been fought over what to call something. Yet these names are simply designations for inanimate objects. It should come as no surprise that people become far more attached to their own names, to that word that designates them as individuals. Some people detest their names so much that they have them legally changed. Others feel more comfortable being called by a shortened form of their name or some other nickname. Our names are a very important part of our identity as human beings.
I would like to take a brief detour into linguistics, if I may. The basic principles of what later became known as the field of semiology are set out in Ferdinand de Saussure’s Cours de linguistique générale (Course in General Linguistics). According to Saussure, language is a system of signs. These signs have two components: the signifiant and the signifié. The signifiant is the actual sound, while the signifié is the concept that sound signifies or means, and these two components cannot be separated. But language is not simply a set of signifiant/signifié pairs; these signs are, in fact, arbitrary. That is, there is no inherent reason why any single signifiant should be paired with any single signifié. Thus the same things can have different names, and I could just as easily be called Jim or even Hasenpfeffer. Just like the same beverage is called both “soda” and “pop” (and sometimes even “soda pop”).
Semiology is of course much more complicated than this, and in this brief discussion I have no doubt distorted what Saussure was trying to say, but the idea of arbitrariness is important to the subject at hand. In English I am called Charles because this is the name that my parents chose for me when I was born, and it is the name that people recognize as designating me. But for most of my school years, including university, I was called Chuck. In fact, in my circle of friends at university there was another Charles. Since I already had another name, he got exclusive rights to “Charles,” and anyone in our circle of friends who said this name was referring to him and not to me. In short, I had a different name when I was with that group of friends.
In Korean I am called Suho because that’s the name that my pastor chose for me, and that is the name that people recognize as designating me. My student identification card and all other school records use this name (a few record my English name as well). I am known to clients by this name. Even my bank recognizes both of my names: my English name in the English alphabet and my Korean name in hangeul. It should be obvious by now, though, that my Korean name could be just as temporary as my English name (or any other name, for that matter), as temporary names can and do exist. Korean culture itself has a good example. During the Joseon period (prior to the 20th century), men went by one name during their childhood, but when they became adults they discarded this name and took one or more new names. Historically, the childhood name still existed, but it was no longer the commonly recognized way of designating that particular person.
So Suho could be a temporary name—but it is not. I still hold to my original defense: that it is a matter of space (or language) and not time. My Korean name is too well known as my signifiant here for me to just cast it off like a cloak. I could do that, of course, but it would be tedious and time-consuming, and I see no reason to do so when I like my Korean name just fine. When I go to the United States people may not call me Suho, but that is what they will always call me when I am here.
And it is only now that I have come to the supposed end of my argument that I realize what the real issue here is, and why this idea of a “temporary name” bothered me so much that I had to devote an entire journal entry to it. In truth, my feelings have nothing to do with how I am identified in Korea and everything to do with my identification to Korea. That is, to say that my Korean name is a temporary name is to imply that someday I will leave Korea and all things Korean behind—that I will burn my bridges and never look back. I did not take this man’s words as a comment on my name, but as a comment on my nature, and I resented his implication that this was somehow just a phase in my life that I would grow out of.
I have lived in Korea for about a third of my life—I’m afraid there’s no way I’m going to be growing out of it now. I now have family here as well, and even if my wife and I should move to the States (or elsewhere) in the future, we will always come back to spend time here. In fact, it took me a long time to become a permanent resident here, and I have no intention of giving up that status. One of the requirements of maintaining this status is that I never spend more than a year (consecutively) outside of Korea, so at the very least we will be making one visit a year. And geographical location aside, Korea has become such an important part of my life that a part of me will always be here whether I am physically here or not. At this moment in time it is home, and to some extent it will remain home until the day I cease to walk this earth. My Korean name is a big part of all this because it represents my identity here.
This is why I felt such an aversion to the idea of a temporary name. I wonder if this man had any idea how much he insulted me. Probably not, since it took me quite a while to figure out just why I felt insulted (not to mention the time it took me to figure out that I did indeed feel insulted). I know he spent a lot of time in the States when he was younger, and maybe that’s the way he felt about his journey there. Or maybe he knows a lot of foreigners who indeed are only sojourning here. I wish I had been able to think all of this out at the time so I could have given him a better answer, but I suppose it’s enough that I took the time to think it through now. And now that it’s thought through, it’s time to bring this entry to a close. Next week is holiday week, and I’ve got a big weekend ahead of me as well. I should have more to write about by next weekend.