A few days ago, my very first niece was born to my Korean sister in law, in South Korea. The photos I shared brought up a lot of questions about the naming process in Korea. I cannot speak for the entire country, but I would like to share a bit of information I have gleaned over the years from my family. Remember, I’m speaking about our family specifically here, so of course this information may no longer be true for the entire country.
Let’s start many years back, at the beginning of my marriage. When my husband and I were married in 2008, I specifically told him “When we have a baby your father will not be naming it”. I had heard that Korean grandfathers are frequently in charge of the naming process. My husband said “Sure, sure, okay”. And that was that.
Jump ahead in time, to the autumn of 2010, when we shared the joyful news that we were expecting a baby the following spring. As I thought and thought about baby names, day and night, I mentioned to my husband “Good thing your dad isn’t involved in the naming process”, he looked at me like I had two heads, and said “What are you talking about? Of course he will be”. Woah, woah, woah. Conveniently, my husband had forgotten my early marriage demand, and so began the argument about naming our first born.
Tempers flared as my husband and I prepared to have a discussion with his father. I insisted (maybe a big angrily) that he tell his dad the decision would be mine to make. Finally, my husband made the dreaded phone call, which went much better than we could have guessed. My father in law, unexpectedly and uncharacteristically was quite blasé about the topic, and said that was fine. We negotiated a “deal”; if a girl was born, I could decide. If a boy was born, we would use the generational name, and we would decide together, or with a name specialist, the full name.
Now, what is a generational name, you may wonder? Traditionally, each generation of a Korean family, has a dolimja (돌림자) or shared name, which is used for all of the boys (and sometimes girls), of the family. My husband’s family’s dolimja/돌림자 is “Jung”. His name is Jung Kwan, and his cousins are Jung Wook, Jung Hwan, Jung Jae, and Jung Nam for example. His grandfather decided on these names for all of his grandsons, after they were born.
Now, our children’s generational name will be “Hwan”, as the second syllable of the given name. Most Korean names are made up of three syllables. Surname (one syllable) and given name (two syllables). As you can see from my husband’s example, his generation shares the dolimja in the first syllable of the given name. The next generation of our family however, will share the dolimja “Hwan” as the second syllable.
My father in law agreed that should we have a boy, we would talk about the options with Hwan. Maybe it would be Min Hwan, Tae Hwan, or Jin Hwan? The possibilities really are endless, considering there are thousands of Korean syllables used to make up a name. It is said that it is only coincidence that Korean names are repeated, as the combinations are so limitless. Unlike Western culture, Koreans do not name their babies after relatives, or people of importance. The special name is created uniquely for the child.
When I asked my husband how he figured out that our generational dolimja would be “Hwan”, he said their would be a big record of our family name tree book or jokbo/ 족보 which tells what the specific dolimja would be. Tracing our ancestry down the family tree for hundreds of years, eventually comes out to “Hwan”. More specifically, my husband is the 45th generation of the Jeon Ju (city of origin) Lee family line. He says that because of the branches of the family tree, he could be an “Uncle” to someone who is seventy years older than him. Interesting.
At my twenty week ultrasound, we found out we were having a girl. (Victory!) We called my parents in law, and they agreed, yes, we could think of a name to call her. I conferred with my mother in law, accepting suggestions, and telling her my ideas. Eventually, my husband and I decided on Bobae/보배, which means “precious treasure”. When I met my husband in 2006, it was the Korean name he called my by. So, in a way, our daughter was named after me, in the end.
As I mentioned before, my sister in law recently gave birth to a daughter. In 2011, she gave birth to a baby boy, named Yoon Hu. For days after the birth, he remained nameless. My sister in law, Jung Eun, was waiting for her father in law to visit a Cheol Hagwon 철학관, A Cheol Hagwon, is a place to visit, where a specialist recommends names based on the birth date and time of the baby, to ensure prosperity and well being in life. The fee is usually between $50 and $200.
About five days after the birth, Jung Eun’s father in law returned with three suitable names for her to choose from. Since his family does not observe the dolimja, the names varied. I believe the three choices were “Yoon Hu”, “Jin Seok” and “Ji Oh”.
They decided to call him Yoon Hu. Now, two years later, she gave birth to her daughter, and again, the baby waited to be named. Finally today, five days later, she has been named. My sister in law liked the name “Yoon Seo”, to co-ordinate with her first born, so when her father in law visited the name specialist, he brought this name with him. The specialist confirmed that Yoon Seo would be a suitable name, according to her birth date and birth time, so the family proceeded with this choice.
I know this sounds so confusing, and to an outsider, outdated, but as the years have passed, and my understanding of traditions and culture have increased, I have come to respect this tradition. What I had once viewed as my right as a mother being taken from me, by the need for power from my father in law, has since changed into love. The love of a grand father who wants only the best future for his grand child, and the need to preserve centuries of tradition.
If my husband and I decide to have another child, I will be more willing and open to the input of my parents in law.
Below, you can see Bobae, Yoon Hu and Yoon Seo