life in korea

What’s in a Name?

When I first started having friends here in Seoul, I would always ask a new friend’s name… more than asking for their child’s name. As my social interaction progressed, I noticed I was often referred to as my son’s mom. My first thought was, like Stifler’s mom in “American Pie”? Hmmm… sultry. LOL.

For new acquaintances, I would always ask my friend to help me with my memory. For a non-Korean, remembering a Korean name is quite hard. She would often answer (if the child’s name is Yaewon) “Yaewon’s omma” (Yaewon’s mom). “No, the name of the mommy. What is her name?” I always insisted on that. And I would always receive, “I don’t know“. I found it weird. Until I realized that is how Korean society identifies women with child/ren. A woman with a child is known by her friends and acquiantances through the name of her child. Not by her first name. Most often, the first name is not known.

I always took it for granted that asking for your child’s name is the most normal thing to do. It’s like appreciating the child. I would never have guessed that the reason is deeper than that. It is actually already the woman’s identity. For an outsider, it may be a scary thought. Feminists would surely rise up and make an issue out of it. But then again, who is to say that one culture is better than another’s culture? In this name game, I just decided to observe and be amused but retain the practice I have always known (be called by my own name). There are things where “When you’re in Rome, do what the Romans do” but I guess this one could be an exception for me. Besides, I can always find security in my being a foreigner in this land:-).

To prove that moms are normally called by their children’s name, Jaz showed me her phonebook contacts and true enough, her list contains all the children’s name followed by the word “omma“. That’s how she identifies the other moms in her son’s school. Jaz and Betchay both offered the explanation that in the Korean society, when a woman gives birth, she is in effect losing her identity. She is now her children’s mother.

I love my Little Dynamo so much. But I would love for people around me to know me simply as “Wendy”. I am not my husband’s wife nor I am my son’s mom. But then again, that’s me! That’s my personal preference.

I’ve noticed that with some Korean women who were able to stay or live in other countries, there is a (hidden) desire to be known with their first names. One woman who lived in Indonesia for some time explicitly told me that she wants to be called by her first name and not by the name of her son. Another woman who has lived in Japan and is now teaching the Japanese language in one of the universities here in Seoul easily introduced herself with her first name in contrast with most moms who would introduce themselves as their child’s mom. The most recent friend I hang out with has travelled and lived with her husband in several countries (hubby works as business consultant for IBM) and expressed her desire to be called by her first name but worries that her name is hard to pronounce and remember.  In cases like this, I happily oblige.

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9 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. hi cher – unfortunately for you, unlike me you need to adjust:-). it is your husband’s culture and your son’s… and yours na rin hehehe.

    hi emil – i can imagine! nakakalito, i’m sure! LOL. you can’t just pretend that you know them all also. hirap nun.

  2. Hey Wendy, I know what you mean about remembering Korean names or Chinese names for that matter. For some reason remembering somebody as John, Bill etc… is so much easier for me. You can just imagine the predicament I’m in when I’m with my clients and they introduce me to about 6 people whose names I’m expected to remember.

    Technomad´s last blog post..Sony Xperia at SKT

  3. when i had zach i reminded my husband not to call me “zach’s mom” or “u-hyeon omma”….i now it’s part of korean culture but i refuse to be included in it….until now my mother=in=law calls me seriya her version of cheryle(because she can’t pronounce my name well) and i really appreciate that, just like you i love my hubby and son very much but i don’t want to be known as the wife and the mom of someone, i want to be called by OWN NAME…….that’s the only thing that’s keeping me sane in korea….bwahahahahahah.

    cher´s last blog post..INFO 106: Baby’s Philippine and Korean Passport

  4. hi betchay – i have close friends whom i address with their first names, too. it’s the fact that it exists (the way moms are called) and in fact, some Korean women I encountered prefers to be called otherwise which makes it amusing (but i don’t mean to say it’s wrong). one cannot stand against an established norm in a society i didn’t grow up in:-).

    hi jehan – so how are you called pala since you don’t have a baby yet? tapos, your husband is a first son pa int he family.

    hi jill – korean language has many (no fewer than 6) different levels of conversational address. It’s quite complicated because you have to consider the relationship between the addressee and the addresser: formal deference, informal deference, blunt, familiar, intimate and plain. re: a woman with more than one child, she will be called by another woman by the name of the child with whom the other woman’s child is friends with. LOL. so if Woman X has Child A and B and Woman Y has Child C and Child C is friends with Child B, Woman Y calls Woman X as “Child B’s omma”. Got it? LOL.

  5. when i first heard my husband call his sis in law “shi-hyeon-omma” i immediately asked him why they call her that. i asked him if can i call her that way too and he explained i have to call her something else (because i’m the wife of the elder brother). i said i’m not comfortable calling her that so i now also call her “shi-hyeon-omma”… i told her to just call me jehan coz she’s about 5 years older than me but she wouldnt oblige…

    jehan´s last blog post..The Seoul Friendship Fair I Attended Solo….

  6. hi wendy! it also has something to do with your relationship… i have a married korean friend and we call each other by our first name (hers is Mi Ra)… our kids are of different age and are not friends…

    it’s different though with my son’s day care center friends’ moms… like one of my son’s friend’s mom, i call her “Jeongwon-i omma” because our relationship started with our sons being friends

    betchay´s last blog post..Sympathies for the Lady Doctor

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