A Korean by Any Other Name

Nelson Mandela’s real name is Rolihlahla. He was given his English name on the first day of school by a teacher, as was the custom for black children living in South Africa at the time. English settlers struggled to pronounce and remember non-Western names (the clicks in some African languages were too tiresome for the British tongue) and they felt that new names would be an efficient remedy. Naming also helped to make settlers feel at home in this new, alien land. In fact, the renaming of places, landmarks and people was one of the primary means of colonising a country, since it erased indigenous identity. In order for all South Africans to conform to the country’s new identity as a colony, its existing history and cultures needed to be ignored.

Similar colonial habits were adopted in other African countries (the DRC being a notable example), many of which reinstated indigenous place names post-independence. (Sadly, Zimbabwe’s Mosi-oa-Tunya – “the smoke that thunders” – is still known as Victoria Falls.) In the “New South Africa”, as it was called in its post-democratic years, combating colonial nomenclature was an act of nation building. Geography books and maps were thrown in the bin as the country rapidly renamed all of its provinces, and many of its cities and streets. It was finally time for white people to learn Xhosa clicks, and for black South Africans to insist on being called by their real names.[1]

This is why I cringe every time I see foreign English teachers in South Korea renaming their students. Apart from my African background, my own name informs my perspective on this issue. I’ve got a name you’ve never seen signify a white woman’s face. Not only is it an Asian name, but it’s primarily in use as a family name or a boy’s name. To top it off, my parents use a different pronunciation of the word. All this laid the foundations for a life full of mispronunciation and misspellings, with a pinch of racism every few years. Though my name is anomalous, no-one has ever suggested I should adopt an English name. Is this because I am white and have semi-Western cultural habits? Does my skin colour and native tongue so empower me that I can expect others to respect my individuality? It would appear so.

In the first English class of the year, it’s common practice[2] for foreign teachers to ask students to provide an English name. From that day, they will be referred to by that name only. I’ve even seen worksheets that require students to pick a name from a list, which is also divided by gender (that deserves a whole other post). It is generally accepted that it’s too inconvenient for expats to get their tongues around Korean names. Excuses for not learning Korean names are marvellous, and include the likes of:

“Korean names all sound the same.”

More similar than Jenny, Jenna, Jennifer and Jessica?

“There are too many students with the same name.”

More than those named Mark, Michael, James, Ashley or Sarah?

“They are so difficult to pronounce.”

Names like Craig, Lionel and Christopher are particularly difficult for Korean speakers to pronounce, because they contain more than two syllables or have consonants placed next to each other. Korean names generally have two syllables and consonants are framed by vowels. Names with the letters L, V and F are also difficult to pronounce, since no equivalent exists in Hangeul.

“It would be easier for me to remember English names.”

This one is somewhat true, but it’s still an ethnocentric perspective. It may not be easy to remember words in another’s language, but to refuse to try shows an ignorance bordering intolerance.

Admittedly, many guest English teachers have over 500 students and it is practically impossible to learn the names of all students. I learnt about 20 out of the 700 names I had on my class lists last year, though I was familiar with about 600 of them in terms of their skill-level and personality. I doubt, however, that teachers would be able to remember 700 names if their classes were full of Ashleys and Stuarts.

“Koreans choose to have an English name.”

Many South Korean women choose to use skin-whitening cream or get eyelid surgery, but it doesn’t make these practices any less questionable. It’s true that many Korean people choose to adopt English names.[3] However, this is arguably rooted in a kind of false consciousness – a belief that conforming to Western cultural expectations is harmless.[4] Korean people benefit from this practice only by conforming to a hierarchy that places English above Korean.

Korea has a postcolonial history in which Koreans were forced to speak Japanese and take Japanese names. This attempt to erase Korean culture is one of the roots of the contemporary animosity between the two countries. It’s interesting, then, that English renaming doesn’t raise red flags.

I am not suggesting that English education in Korea is a form of colonisation. I learnt very quickly that Korean nationalism and ethnic pride is unbelievably strong, and no amount of such education will destroy Korean national identity. Renaming in Korea is just one more example of English speakers making themselves at home in foreign lands. I’d like to think it’s a narrow-minded attitude that can’t prevail. Many names now common in English-speaking countries originated in other languages and arrived via immigration or colonisation. An increasingly globalised world means that Korean names are set to become more familiar – even if only due to notorious North Korean leaders.

Kim Jong Un - unlikely to take an English name anytime soon. Pic by petersnoopy.

Kim Jong Un – unlikely to take an English name anytime soon.
Pic by petersnoopy.


[1] While social change is evident in South Africa, it is admittedly slow in most respects. It is still common for black South African families to give their children both a traditional and English name.  Many foreign workers in also choose English names for occupational purposes. My family once hired a Malawian gardener who went by the name of McDonald, since this was one of the first English names he saw in South Africa. If that isn’t the best example of the colonisation and commercialisation of identity, I don’t know what is.

[2] I’m not suggesting that all foreign English teachers support this practice. Like me, there are teachers who have voiced their disdain for it in blog posts and forums.

[3] I’ve met people who speak of having a side to their personality that is expressed only when they are speaking English and using their chosen name. For some, this may speak of a desire to temporarily escape certain aspects of Korean culture, while others may find it a unique form of self-expression. Either way, it’s a creative and empowering act for the speaker.

[4] I am not a Marxist scholar, nor have I thoroughly researched the implications of this theory in postcolonial contexts. This application does exist, though, and I welcome comments from those more informed.

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13 responses to “A Korean by Any Other Name

  1. I appreciate your perspective here. This is an issue that I have confronted many times as an English teacher in Korea. The teacher I replaced forced our students to adopt English names. Some of them wish to continue to use this name during English class; others don’t. My practice is to use the Korean names unless the students ask me not to (and some have). One student prefers his English name (Ricky) to his Korean name (Sang Chan) because it sounds like lettuce (sang chu). Another student simply loves her English name (Cindy), though I agree that this is likely related to internalized false conceptions about the superiority of Western culture. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences related to this issue.

  2. I appreciate your thoughts, too, but I think the perspective isn’t practical. Part of having authority in the classroom is being able to call a student by name and ask a question or reprimand. For those of us who have real difficulty memorizing Korean names, it means months and months of ineffective classroom time, where you’re left pointing and yelling “you! stop!”. This wastes time and degrades your reputation as a teacher. While I wholeheartedly agree that not trying is rude, even for those who try, it can be a nightmare. I tried for seven months before relenting and letting my students pick English names, and I study Korean regularly. In one and a half months, I’ve learned everyone’s English name with no issues and have found teaching to be significantly easier when I can name students. It’s both a trust signifier and a disciplinary issue.

    So while I agree with many of your points and it would be ideal to call all of my students by their Korean names, I just don’t find it to be practical.

    • Thanks for your input Sally – I’m sure many were thinking the same thing, and a dialogue about this issue is so necessary.

      All we can ask of teachers is to do the best they can in any given situation. Often we sacrifice theories or principles that we support simply because we want to get through the lesson most effectively. I’ve definitely used methods I don’t support in order to compromise with a co-teacher or focus on more important aspects of the lesson.

      It’s this tension between the ideal and the real that underpins any social problem, I guess. I thought it was important to acknowledge the problem, which could hopefully be a first step to solving it practically.

  3. Not at all specific to Korean students, but I have a difficult time settling on a pronunciation for many Asian students. I am aware of different stress, vowels, and tones (sometimes) but just can’t reproduce them. I have tried really hard to get the correct pronunciation down pat, not just an approximation, only to have students say “You can…. call me Harry.” … okay, Harry. Then I remember trying to go by “Katie” in South America, only to tell people “it’s like Katia” after a few tries. I don’t WANT to call them Harry, I just don’t want to butcher their real names and call them something like kah-tay when they really want katie.

    • Valid question. Is it more important to pronounce students’ names correctly, or use their original names? This one seems a personal preference.

      Perhaps it’s most important that the student decides. If Harry prefers to go by an English name rather than have it mispronounced, that’s his choice. There’s definitely a difference between students choosing a name and being required to provide one.

  4. I don’t think this is just an English thing.

    I’m European, and I had to insist on several occasions for people in my country to refer to my Korean boyfriend by his name and not invent something new, despite the fact that our native language is not spread nor has the power that English language does.

    Also, when I visited another European country they changed my name to fit their language better.

    I think this is just human nature.

    Still, I believe making an effort to say a person’s name properly is the basic of human courtesy.

  5. I realise I’m coming in to this discussion quite late, but I only just discovered your blog, Deva, and I really like it! On the matter of English names for EFL students, here is my v long-winded response. Apologies in advance – this is something I’ve thought about a lot. 😉
    I taught EFL in Taiwan for a year, and then in London for a year and a half. In Taiwan, I taught people of all ages – from 3 to 63 – in a suburban outpost of a small city where people had never seen a Western-looking person in real life before. For a lot of the kids, and even some of the adults, I was their first native English-speaking teacher. The parents of my youngest students asked me, as their children’s English teacher, to choose an English name for them. It was a matter of huge pride to these parents that they could afford to send their children to a bilingual school, and they saw their children’s having an English name as a symbol of empowerment. Their kids were sure to succeed in the world if they were fluent in English, and had an English name. From their first day of kindergarten, the kids were referred to by their English name only – by their families, their peers, and their Chinese/Taiwanese teachers. These names were not insisted on by foreign teachers who couldn’t pronounce their Chinese names – to be honest, I never once heard any of my students using a name other than their English one. In the case of the older students, who, before I arrived in their suburb, had only had English lessons with Chinese native-speaking teachers, their English names were really quite odd: Handsome, Brown, Armstrong, Honey. But my point is that these names weren’t imposed on them by foreigners – they were acquired from their fellow Taiwanese. Sure, it might have been out of a misplaced sense of allegiance and adherence to the idea that Western ideals and names are superior to those of the Taiwanese, but the pride that adults and children in Taiwan took in their English names was quite remarkable to see. To ask them to go by their Chinese names instead would be to force them to lose face, which one obviously has to avoid at all costs.
    When I taught in London, a lot of my students were Asian – and the Taiwanese students all went by their English names (including a guy whose English name was, honestly, “Zibet”) while the Chinese, Japanese and Korean students all used their native-language names. None of my fellow teachers had any trouble with their students’ Asian names, even the teachers who had never left England – so it goes to show that, with a little patience and occasional pronunciation help, teachers can, and should, learn any name that their students give for themselves.

    • Thanks so much for taking the time to tell your story Michelle. I totally agree that teachers should learn any name that the students choose. Showing that measure of respect is definitely more important than being right about a certain ideology.

      As you said, identifying oneself is hugely empowering (as it is with regards to race, gender and sexuality), and mandatory renaming seems to ignore that agency.

  6. I’m Korean middle school student, seventh grade, and I learn from American teachers. To be honest, I prefer my Korean name, Sorin. Once in English class, my new American teacher asked what my English name is, since he could not remeber Korean names. I told him that I don’t have English name, so please call me Sorin. But he said no, and he gave me a name. Kristen. The teacher said that I look like Kristen. It was funny. I do understand how hard it is to pronounce Korean names for americans. Common names like Minji, Jung hyeon, Ha eun, Hee Jung, Junho. Um… when I was in LA with my friend Hyeona, some American kids made fun of her name calling her Hyena..

    • Sorin, I’m so grateful you shared this story – thank you. You’ve explained the difficulties that arise in cross-cultural situations in Korea really well. As you said, it’s important to see all sides of the issue.

      Like you, I wouldn’t want anyone to change my name. But when people spell or pronounce it incorrectly, I don’t mind because I know it’s unusual.

  7. Pingback: Last Minute Travel Deals 24/7 | How not to look like an idiot in Korea·

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