In the Name of the Father

Printer-friendly versionHaving chosen a name, my wife and I went to District Office to register our son's birth. And of course, we immediately ran into difficulties.

I believe that the children of some male foreigners in Korea take their father's surnames, so I didn't think we were treading entirely new territory with our decision to give our son a Korean first name and my Western surname. However, the first employee at the District Office said that she didn't know how to enter it into the computer. A supervisor was called, but he didn't know either.

Specifically, the problem related to our desire to register my son's first name in Chinese characters. This would be fine for 'the computer' if his surname had Chinese characters, but it only has the Korean character transliteration of the Western surname. Picking Chinese characters for names is hard, and I don't have a Chinese version of my surname. So 'the computer' said no.

We'd actually gone to the District Office to do two things - register our son as an individual and add him to our family register. The computer allowed his name to be added to the family register, but it wouldn't allow the individual registration. While this might at least seem like some sign of social progress - it probably isn't; when I got married my wife was designated as the head of our household, so I believe the computer allowing the family registration has more to do with her being Korean than any anything else. The staff told us they would have to consult their regional office for guidance, and we left without registering our son's birth.

It's not the first time I've encountered the 'computer says no' problem here due to my being a foreigner, and I'm sure it won't be the last. I used to be a computer programmer and I know that all you do when you write a program is take a snapshot of your own world view and create something which makes the computer behave the same way.

Later came the phone call from the Regional Office. Along with the 'computer says no' syndrome, my patience for Korea's passive-aggressive 'it-would-be-better-if' society is beginning to wear pretty thin as well, so the caller's suggestion that "it would be better if" we dispensed with the Chinese characters for my son's first name - rendering it without meaning - did not go down very well. Neither did the bizarre but apparently legal suggestion that he have a Korean surname on his Korean passport and a Western surname for his British one. The elephant in the room of that conversation seemed to be - thankfully left unspoken - that actually it would be better if my son just had a Korean surname.

When my wife thoroughly rejected this proposal, it was then - and only then - that the unknown official said that it could be done our way by registering the name in Korean characters and adding the Chinese characters for his first name later in some official way. It does nothing to alleviate my sense that the bureaucracy here is continually trying to beat people into homogeneous submission and only gives in to diversity when all else has failed.

That said, I'm not a big fan of multiculturalism as a national policy. In my country it became the equivalent of inviting a homicidal maniac to stay with you in your house, and an incredibly boorish homicidal maniac at that. And while the leaders of my city perpetuated the big lie of multiculturalism, it was never multicultural - it was just increasingly bipolar, like - I suspect - many of its residents. But Korean politicians talk a lot about multiculturalism these days like it's a good thing. I'm not saying it won't be in Korea, but they haven't experienced what I've experienced. However, on a personal level - and this is the unavoidable paradox - my son will grow up in a multicultural environment, and while I think every native-English speaker who expects Korea to bend over backwards for them should be sent back home never to return, I draw the line at my son's name. He is half-Korean, half-English, and as much as a name reflects a more fundamental identity, I want that identity to reflect his twin heritages. I guess that's where I draw the line. This probably isn't going to get any easier.


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