It surprised me when I first came to Korea and realized that Korean kids were given English names. Why, I wondered, wouldn’t they just keep their Korean name? Does an English name really make it easier for the kids to learn, or is it for the benefit of native teachers?

Of course, in the year and a half that has since elapsed, I’ve become more than used to the system of ‘education’ in Korea. I no longer question giving kids an English name, because I’m asked to do it at least once a week. However, a few more questions have since come to mind:


1) Why allow kids to choose their own names, when they’ll clearly pick something like ‘Beckham’ or ‘Harry Potter’?

2) Why allow Korean English teachers to name the kids, when they always misspell the names, or choose the same name for each kid, followed by a randomly assigned letter?

3) Why bother asking foreign teachers to name children, when Korean teachers, directors or parents will inevitably change to something ‘cuter’?

4) Why contradict the person you brought to this country simply because of their native language, by denying that they know how to spell a common name from their own culture?

Of course, I’m not really looking for answers to these questions. Asking why anyone does anything in Korea is a waste of breath. If you bother to ask, you’ll always be given a standard, “just because” type answer.

Regarding the first question, it’s simply a terrible idea to allow a child to pick their own name, because across the whole world, people are dumb enough to be obsessed with celebrity culture. In Britain, every generation is blighted by the ignorance of the previous generation, with names gleaned from the pop charts. It’s tragic, and I believe that it’s legitimately a form of child abuse. How can a child grow up to be intelligent when named after – not to mention dressed after and taught to act like – a dumb whore pop star? There are thousands of Kylies, Christinas and Britneys in Britain right now, with dole-scrounging parents dressing them in shiny whore clothes.

In Korea, it’s much the same. People see rich folk on TV and think that by copying them, they’ll somehow become rich, too. Or maybe it’s just for the sake of coolness. Whatever, it’s no big deal. It’s just funny.

In my time in Korea, I’ve seen several Harry Potters (yes, they actually chose a surname), a few Beckhams, and a Rooney. There are also the names chosen to simply sound cool, and are usually chosen by kids once they complete a few years of English and learn how to use a dictionary: Dragon, Thunder, Tiger, Lion, Rion (yup, he misspelled and mispronounced ‘Lion’), and also Don Cass (돈가쓰, get it?)

In regards the second question, it’s really never a good idea to have a Korean person finalise the spelling of an English word… Take a look around you – how many signs, t-shirts, menus etc etc have no mistakes? None. There is not an English sentence written in Korea that doesn’t contain some monumentally dumb mistake. Were it not for national pride, one might expect a native speaker to be asked at least to spell check or proofread anything written in English. I couldn’t imagine going back to Scotland and starting a Korean restaurant, without having a Korean friend check anything written in a language, that no matter how hard I study, I will NEVER understand as well as a native speaker!

So, why let a Korean teacher write a child’s English name on the school files, books and computer system, when it will inevitably spelled wrong? I’ve seen some epic blunders, but who am I to judge? It’s not like I come from the country where these names originated… It’s not as though these are the names of my family, friends and ancestry… But try telling that to a Korean person, who knows that no matter how great your experience may be in the English language, you’ll always just be a foreigner. Koreans know English far better than any dirty foreigner, right?

Frequently, the names will be misspelled English names, based upon the troubles that Koreans have in mastering the Roman alphabet. I’ve had kids called Rucy (Lucy), Steben (Steven), Jepp (Jeff), Henlee (Henry), Charlin (Charlene), Mikile (Michael), Daneir (Daniel), Sarry (Sally), Hally (Harry), Any (Annie), and many, many more. I’ve never given up trying to help change these names, because I don’t want the poor kids to grow up, unaware, and emigrate to somewhere people can actually speak English.

Quite often the names are just invented. They might come from something someone heard somewhere, and then became distorted through time… Sometimes they are names that are easy for Korean people to pronounce, or that simply sound Korean. The majority are comprised of two distinct syllables, containing similar vowel and consonant sounds to Korean names. Usually they contain a “j”. Right now, I teach several kids whose English names are variations upon the word June, or Joon. Last year, I taught a class of twelve teenagers, whose names ALL began with the letter ‘j’.

When I’m asked to pick names, it annoys me because it should take some thought. Like naming a pet, you want something that will suit the kids. In the end, I often end up naming students after my family and friends from back home. The first kid I ever named was given my middle name, ‘Steven’.

When Korean teachers name the kids, they don’t necessarily spell the names wrong – sometimes they just give the kids the same names, and chose the ones they’ve been told are spelled correctly. I once had a class of four Tonys. There was Tony B, Tony L, Tony J, Tony Y. It was absurd. The letter after their name, I believe, corresponded to the transliteration of their Korean family name.

Perhaps we should focus on cultural awareness, and give the children some authentic American names, instead of reusing the old fashioned ones. How about some D’Shawns, Lakishas, and Tyrones?

What really annoys me, though, is when people change the kid’s name. I mean, as a teacher, I teach hundreds of children, and I always make sure to know their English AND Korean names. Yet, no one thinks twice about making their names ‘cuter’… Whenever there is a new famous Korean-American, or a Man Utd player, or a famous person in Korea who adopts another name, or there is a movie that is popular for a week or so… The parents or Korean teachers will frequently rename a child! The child then spends several weeks in confusion, trying to work out what’s going on, and I spend at least a month calling them by the wrong name, or telling their Korean teacher that changing a kid’s name just to make them sound cute is like what idiots do with the pets they only have because of some fad.

My favourite student last year was a girl called Sandra. Her mother, as most mothers were in that sick area of Daegu, was a total bitch fiend. She decided to rename her kid every few months. She dressed little Sandra like a fucking dog. I tried to tell Sandra that her name shouldn’t change, but she obviously sided with her mother. I tried to convince my co-workers to talk to the parent, but I have an unfortunate track record of making parents (and co-workers) cry, and I was forbidden from even passing messages through others.

Today, I was told that one of my students – Harry – had changed his name. His mother – who is nice, but a little unbalanced – decided that he should be called Mikhail Gorbachev. Yup, that’s right… Mikhail Gorbachev. Just like this Mikhail Gorbachev. I tried to approach the situation as logically as is possible to do in a Korean ‘educational’ facility – I explained that ‘Mikhail’ is actually not an English name, and that although it is easier for a Korean person to pronounce than, say, Michael, it is surely contradictory to the whole English name system to start throwing random Russian names into the fray.

The weird thing about this whole situation – that is to say, giving Korean kids non-Korean names – is that I’m actually starting to forget what’s a real name and what isn’t. It’s like with language – how many ESL teachers in Korea leave speaking worse English than when they came? Being around bad English so much makes it hard to notice what’s right and what’s wrong. Likewise, being forced to address kids with fake names for nine hours a day makes it hard to tell what a real name even is. Is my name real? Am I really called David S Wills? Hell, when I came to Korea they wrote my name BACKWARDS on my alien registration card, and told me it didn’t matter. Consequently, my name is now written BACKWARDS on my bank details, and I get addressed as such whenever I go to the bank! Next time I get a passport, it’ll read: Slliw S Divad.

Now that’s a good Korean name! What does it matter, anyway? Every time a Korean person gives me a legal document, they list my nationality as American! Racists! I’m sure they’d love being legally recognized as Japanese!

But it’s too late, folks. I already took a Korean name about a year ago – 한슴만. I tried saying that to a few Korean people, and they looked at me like I was mad! “You are not Korea person!” I thought, that’s funny, why can’t I have a Korean name when learning Korean, but they can take English names, regardless of whether they’re real or fake, and then switch them around like they change man-purses and kimchi pots.

Moreover, I was questioned as to the spelling of my assumed name. What could it mean? The problem is that the transliteration of English and Korea is completely flawed – going both ways. The name is meant to read something like ‘handsome man’, but in the standardized transliteration, it would read 핸슴맨, or something closer. Of course, if you actually read that aloud, it says ‘hen-seum-men’, which is retarded.

I told my students about this recently, and they were kind enough to point out that I wasn’t really that handsome, and that doesn’t even sound like a real name. Instead, I became 이미키, or Lee Miki. I asked why, and they said it made me sound foreign.

From now on, I shall be Mickey Lee.


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DAVID WILLS is the managing editor of Beatdom Magazine, and the author of The Dog Farm and Scientologist! William S. Burroughs and the 'Weird Cult'. You can learn more about him on his website.

3 responses to “Teaching Mikhail Gorbachev”

  1. Mr. Baekseju says:

    It’s exactly what I’ve been wondering for the last couple of years !

    • Yes, naming in Korea is a strange business. I guess you don’t get to name too many of your co-workers, huh?

      I’m still having trouble understanding 엠마, my Korean-French student… She’s a strange one.

  2. […] DAVID WILLS teaches a bevy of really, really famous children. […]

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