In Korea, Where Our Mothers Lose Their Names

by Hahna Yoon

I have a memory of my mother so clear I almost feel as if I was there.

My mother is sitting in a circle with the other moms of my kindergarten class and her eyes fire up as each woman introduces herself.

I am Ji-eun’s mother.
I am Ah-ram’s mother.
I am Min-sook’s mother.

In my mind, even though it was not part of her story, my mom’s voice booms when it is her turn. “My name is Kim Hyun-sook,” she says so proudly it almost puts the other moms to shame.

Korea is not a country that does not know the importance of a name. For most of Korea’s history, your family name indicated your clan and heritage. Your name was said with a sense of pride (or shame). Take apart your Korean name character by character and there is meaning behind each syllable. We are constantly reminded, for instance, that during Japanese colonialism, many nationalists fought against Sōshi-kaimei, a 1939 policy that forced Koreans to adopt Japanese names. After the war, many Koreans chose more advantageous names that feigned them of a nobler heritage.

“You are a Yoon. And Yoon women are strong,” my mom would tell me when I lamented about my name as a child.

Although women do not change their family name after getting married, Korean is so heavy with honorifics and sensitive to a Confucian sense of hierarchy and age that it’s more common to refer to someone by your relationship to them as opposed to their name. In the office, for example, colleagues I outrank will call me sunbae (senior) and in social circles, women younger than me will call me unnie (older sister). In public, when the relationship can be undefined, I am addressed by my gender and age. At a department store, I can be called ah-ga-ssi (young lady) and at a press conference, I will most likely be called gi-ka-nim (reporter).

At one point in my career a few years ago, I realized that I had gone several months without hearing my name. And some colleagues I worked with on a daily basis didn’t even know my name at all. I was “the American.”

As Han Heung-sik, professor at Pusan National University discusses in the 2001 article “Gender Discrimination in the Korean Language,” expressions used to refer to women in public are often degrading and impolite. While an older man is more likely to be addressed as mister or teacher (the polite standard for greeting any person in public), an older woman is likely samonim – a word meaning “teacher’s wife” but often translated as “madam.” My mom adds that not only has she been called uhmuh-nim (mother in the honorific), so have childless peers her age. “Why is the only role for women my age motherhood? I am not your mother, don’t call me mom,” my mother says.

Even when my mother and I lived in the United States, she held firm to her name, never opting to call herself Jennifer or Diana like many other immigrated parents around me and never letting me change mine when I briefly went through a phase where I wanted to be called Melody. “Not Hyoung-sue, Hyun-sook,” she would say mouthing the necessary “o.” Friends who never even got the pronunciation of my relatively easy name right (opting to call me Hannah instead of Hahna) could say my mom’s name in three crystal clear syllables.

Back here in Korea, I cringe when my Korean friends come over and call my mom “Hahna’s mother” or ajumma (middle-aged lady), despite the fact that these are the most commonly used terms. After all, google “how to call my friend’s mom in Korean,” and you’ll get plenty of posts advising you to do just that. According to Minju Kim of Department of Modern Languages at Claremont McKenna College, Korean women with children are addressed by reference to their children’s names even by her close friends. A husband could address his wife as “Eunji’s mother” and while in theory, this terminology could extend the other way, calling someone “Eunji’s father” is much less practiced. (According to a Better Life report in 2015 conducted by the OECD, Korean children spend an average of six minutes a day with their fathers.)

In Korea, a mother is identified for her sacrifice, her suffering.

When I briefly taught English writing, I was shocked to find that a great majority of my younger students did not know their mother’s names. While it does not speak to the entire Korean experience, it also made an impression on me that few of my high school students wrote about their mothers outside the context of their relationships with them. While fathers were doctors, businessmen, lovers of sports, short-tempered and drinkers, mothers were described as organizers of schedules, makers of dinners and bearers of gifts. What are your mother’s hobbies? What is she other than your mother? I’d encourage them to ask.

In “Halo of Identity: The Significance of First Names and Naming,” M.D. Tschaepe writes that “[a] first name not only grants one a specific identity as a language user, [it] also directs who that person is and will be through the name’s physiognomy and reference to the world. The name is both a liberation through identity and a powerful order of limitation…” To this, I would love the opportunity to ask: What are the consequences of never hearing your name? What if your name is your Samson’s hair? Can your identity hold strong when your name is rendered anonymous?

With all her might, my mom has held onto her name, and her identity, her entire life – insisting the two are intertwined. Even she, with the fire in her eyes, has become weathered.

“죽을때가 다 되다”is a common expression among elderly women that scares me and it means “It’s time for me to die.” (And it’s particularly chilling since suicide rates amongst Korean senior citizens are some of the highest in the OECD.) Women 60+ are most likely to be heard saying them and often, these words are preceded by stories of “my children are grown and my youth is gone… ”. After all, if a woman is valued solely for her physical beauty and her ability to be a mother, what good is she when her youth is gone and her children have children of their own? Who remembers the names of these strong women when they are not spoken?

Top photo courtesy Hahna Yoon

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