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Monday, April 21, 2014

What's In a Name?

It seemed like an insignificant event at the time, as normal as licking a stamp and placing it in the corner of an envelope, or like leaving a bookmark on the last page you’ve read in a book. Little did I appreciate the gift and the meaning it would have in my life, as Professor Chae Joon-ki handed me the sheet of paper.

The professor had studied the names of each of the Peace Corps volunteers in our group in Korea. Using the letters and sounds from our first and last names in English, he tried to create a Korean name that would be a meaningful match.
Professor Chae Joon-ki in 1974
I was given the name Song Su Nam. As Korean tradition places the surname name first, my family name is Song, from the Chinese Song Dynasty. Su, means long, like the length of a river, or a life of many years. Nam, is Korean for namja or man. 

That's me, aka Song Su Nam, as a Peace Corps Volunteer (1975)

Since that cold, sunny, January day in 1974, my Korean second name has taken on special meaning for me. I've envisioned myself an old, wise man who lived in Korea during the days of the Song Dynasty, sometime between 960-1279.

Actually, I am quite proud of my original birth surname Schuit, which is purely Dutch for “boat.” That would have been the vehicle that transported my grandparents to America during the second decade of the 20th century. The name was probably chosen in the early 1800’s as a result of a mandate from Napoleon who, as he conquered Europe, dictated last names as a sign of modernization. No doubt, my ancestors’ occupation had something to do with the sea.

My Korean name, however, has come to take on a bit of magic in its own right. Years ago I had my Korean name inscribed on a traditional Korean stamp (doh-jang). Until fairly recently, the outline of your name, in thick red ink, constituted your signature in all official transactions here.

My Korean name stamp
When referred to endearingly by Korean friends, the word “shi” is added verbally as a suffix, making my given Korean name, Su Nam shi, an expression of closeness and caring in a relationship.

Recently, I acted on a long standing, but unfulfilled intention to get a tattoo. In a tattoo parlor in the Gangnam District in Seoul, In-nyung, a lovely, quiet, young artist took me full circle. On my right leg, she drew the name given to me over forty years ago by Professor Chae. Long since retired from Kyungbuk National University, I was sad to learn that he passed away just a week or two after I got my tattoo.

My Korean name

A name, of course, can be more than just a “handle.” Sometimes, it’s a passport to an entirely different world.


  1. Interesting piece, can you please find me what my name means? and I think that #throwback picture from 1975 reminds me of Aaron.... looking forward to see you

  2. Fun post, Steve! My Korean name from birth is Lee Ok Mee (or Li Ok Mee?). I actually always said the only tattoo I would get would be my American name written in Korean on my left inside wrist. It is the only Korean I know how to write! Maybe I should learn to write my Korean name and get a tattoo of both. So I said I would get the tattoo for my 30th birthday, which has come and gone. My 34th is this year, so who knows. Or maybe I'll wait another 30 years and do it on my 60th. I know Korea is in a shroud of sadness, pain, and anger. I hope you are okay. In a few days, I am headed to Japan to visit my brother for two weeks, but will have to save my Korea visit for another time. Hopefully you'll still be there!