How to Name a Baby in South Korea

What's in a name? A pregnant co-worker of mine just told me that she's expecting a daughter. After some enthusiastic congratulations were offered, I asked if she and her husband had any names in mind. "No," she said. "We don't think about that until after the baby is born." Koreans like to consult fortune tellers for major events, of which having a baby is just one. The fortune teller, armed with the baby's birthdate and parental information (and I'm sure blood type), will come up with some choices for the lucky parents, who then choose their favourite name.

Almost all Korean names are three syllables: the first is the family name and the last two make up the given name. There's no "middle name" like in Western names. Tradition states that given names are rooted in Chinese characters (like family names) and the meanings are very important, more so than names in Western countries, where names are usually chosen for their sound. One of my friend's name, for example, means "big success" and another means "honour and virtue."

There are other naming traditions, too. Siblings usually share one of the two syllables in his or her name. As my friend already has a child, I expect that her second daughter will share one half of her name with her sister. Not only do siblings (or even cousins) share a syllable, but it's always in the same position. So if the eldest daughter's name is Eun Kyung (grace and honour), her sister might be Eun Mi (grace and beauty) or Eun Ae (grace and love). Also, kids take their father's family name, even though mothers keeps their family names.

Like other traditions, things are changing in Korea. For the past couple decades, families have been naming their kids pure Korean names, as in, names that can't be written in Chinese characters. My Korean name, which was given to me by my students, is a pure Korean name. It's Miso, which means "smile." Many families don't follow the generational shared name tradition, either. And, when I asked another Korean friend about naming a baby with a fortune teller's recommendations, the response was a huge, "What? Why would they do that? That's so dumb!"---which leads me to believe that tradition's on its way out, too.

Name are considered to be very important in Korea. So important, in fact, that it's considered rude to actually call someone by their name. I don't even know some of my elders' names because I've always called them by their titles. It's awkward (for me, at least), but that's the way it is.

What's in a name? In Korea, a lot.

It's on Me: Paying for Dinner in Korea

To celebrate my friend's birthday, I invited her out for dinner. We got all dressed up and met in Gangnam for a nice meal. Like usual, she didn't want to pick the restaurant, but I reminded her that this was her day and she should get to choose. She decided on a nice Italian bistro and we enjoyed a great dinner together to celebrate her 24th. Then the bill came. Who pays?

There are two rules in Korea when it comes to paying the bill:

  1. The one who invites pays for everyone.
  2. The birthday person pays for everyone.

We argued over it for a bit. She said it was her birthday and she should pay, to which I countered that I invited her out AND it was her birthday, so I should pay. It got a little tougher when she played the "culture" card and told me that Koreans usually pay for the meal on their birthdays. I tossed the culture card right back at her and said that in Canada, we like to take our friends out for their birthday. It was tough battle of cultures, but my stubbornness paid off in the end and the meal was on me.

Like many Korean traditions, things are changing with this generation. While custom states that the inviter pays for everyone's meal, that doesn't happen when I go out with Korean friends my age; we split the bill evenly. That works well when the custom is to share food, like at a galbi (Korean barbeque) restaurant. However, with older co-workers or especially school dinners with the principal, I know that the meal is taken care of for me. I just remember to serve the beers (being the youngest in the group, that's my job) and repeat many thanks before I head out.

Turning a Year Older in Korea 
Turning 1 in Korea the Traditional Way

Turning A Year Older in Korea

Today is Seollal, the Korean New Year. The Korean New Year usually coincides with the Chinese New Year (which is also known as the Lunar New Year). Here in Korea, the Korean holiday celebrates the beginning of a new year, as well as celebrating another year of life, making it the most important holiday of the year.

I've been told for the past six months that my Korean age is either one or two years older than my Western age, but no one could tell me how to calculate my exact Korean age. The age system seemed to be so confusing, it's taken me six months to understand it. And after all that time, I now realize it's not too badeven for those of us who aren't so great at math.

So here goes.

First of all, when a Korean is born, he or she is already one year old. Then on his or her first Seollal, the little baby turns two. It doesn't matter when his or her actual birthdate is; everyone turns a year older on this day.

So let's pretend a little baby was born here in Korea on 1 December 2007. We'll call it KB, Korean Baby. KB, on 1 December 2007, is one year old. Today, KB turns two years old.

Let's pretend another little baby was born in England on the same day, 1 December 2007. This little one is named EB, English Baby. EB doesn't even turn one until 1 December 2008.

So, the little KB is always older than EB by one or two years. Before Seollal, any date between 1 December 2007 and 7 February 2008, KB is one year older than EB. But from Seollal until 30 November 2008, KB is actually two years older than EB.

In fact, I've also been told that the common Korean "birthday" is the Gregorian new year, 1 January. Koreans tell me, "Everyone turns a year older on the same day, on New Years Day." And I ask, "What new year? Lunar? Or January first?" Then they get all flustered and unsure, and I get different responses from different peopleor even different responses from the same person. But my Korean go-to girl, the all-knowing Ms Heo, was very sure when she was telling me about this interesting holiday, so I'm going to go with her answer.

Because Koreans find it complicated and difficult to explain, many people have turned to asking, "What year were you born?" instead of "What is your age?"

And with a new age comes a fresh start with a new year. This three-day holiday a family affair, very similar to Chuseok, where most people go home to visit with their relatives. At home, families eat tteokguk (rice-cake soup) and ring in the official new year wearing traditional hanbok. As well, families hold ancestral memorials, just as they do on Chuseok.

Unique to this holiday, children receive gifts on Seollal from their elders. And not just any gift, but envelopes of money. Elder relatives give envelopes with money to their children, nieces, nephews, and grandchildren. The amount usually coincides with the children's ages; the older you are, the more you get. It's such an important aspect of this holiday that new banknotes to banks so that people can give crisp new bills. In order to receive the envelope (called sebaetdon), the child must bow to their elders (called sebae) and wish their elders luck in the new year by saying, "Saehae bok manhi badeseyo."

So, all over Korea, happy birthday and happy new year! Welcome to the year of the rat. May you receive a lot of luck in this new year.

Turning 1 in Korea the Traditional Way 
It's on Me: Paying for Dinner in Korea

Turning 1 in Korea the Traditional Way

To celebrate an American friend’s birthday, I decided to turn things a little Korean and celebrate it as a traditional first birthday. After all, it may not have been his first birthday, but it was his first birthday in Korea.

A typical Korean’s tol (first birthday) includes an abundance of food, plenty of prayers, and a gathering of friends. However, the highlight of the party is the gift-choosing tradition. This is what I wanted to recreate for my friend’s birthday because I think it’s the most curious birthday custom. A display of presents is laid out for the child to choose just two things, and these chosen presents are significant because it is believed that they forecast the future of the little baby.

Traditionally, gifts like a bow and arrow, pencil, ruler, money, and string are presented. Choosing a bow and arrow set means the child will be brave. A pencil, the child will become a doctor or teacher. A ruler, good hand skills. Money, wealth. String, a long life.

I included a few non-traditional items just for fun. The bow and arrow transformed into a superhero watch (still brave). A bottle opener either meant a good chef, or an alcoholic as some of the others at the party decided. A ball for athletic. A selection of toy cars for a mail delivery man, bus driver, and ambulance driver, respectively. A comic book for good humour. A light bulb for creativity.

Without knowing the meanings of the random gifts on the table, my friend carefully selected the ball and the superhero watch. We shall see if he does become an athletic, brave man in the future (or was this 23 years too late?).

the birthday boy with his almost-traditional birthday presents

the birthday boy with his almost-traditional birthday presents

On her first birthday, my friend at work, Ms. Heo, chose the pencil and the string, and she actually did become a teacher. We’re still waiting on the long life part, hoping the prediction will be true.

Turning a Year Older in Korea 
It's on Me: Paying for Dinner in Korea