What’s in a Name?

 All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

Our names are part of our identity. They define our “selves”. Our names represent where we come from, our traditions, our ancestors, our parents’ dreams and hopes for us. They are a window into our cultures, our religions, our families, our past. Our names also define our present and our future. They stand for our essence – they are a fundamental piece of our existence.

The time I spent in South Korea, as a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching recipient, gave me a greater insight into the importance of one’s name in Korean culture and how it impacts children who emigrate to schools in the Western world.

In South Korea, the family name is the father’s name. There are approximately 300 family names in South Korea today. It is not unusual for people to share the same last name – Kim, Park, Lee, Choi. Women keep their family name when they marry to honor their ancestors since this is part of their heritage. Their children will take on the father’s family name.

Korean parents bestow great importance in choosing the given name for their child. It represents generation and lineage, as in Chinese culture. Families will use two characters for the generation or given name, one that is unique to the child and the other that is generational. Therefore, siblings will share one character in their given names. This tradition accentuates a sense of belonging in a collectivist society that respects tradition and ancestry.

Names are symbols of one’s heritage. Still today, Koreans use a “dojang” (도장) or personal seal made in traditional stone or wood stamp that is used to sign one’s name. Dojangs go back to the second century B.C. and they continue to be a meaningful characteristic of Korean culture. Dojangs come in a beautiful silk bag that accentuates their relevance and significance. One of my dear friends gave me my own dojang. It is a special reminder of the importance of my name and my time in Korea.



One of my previous blog posts, tells about my friendship with Yangsook Choi, author of The Name Jar. Her book is a “must read and teach” in my English as a Second Language Program. It is a vehicle for our Korean students and their peers to understand and appreciate the importance of one’s name. The main character, Unhei, deliberates whether she should keep her Korean name or change it to an English name. It is this ambivalence and sense of loss that so many of my students face when they join our schools.



The sense of belonging and history that is so meaningful to Korean identity is quickly replaced by common English given names that are meaningless and have no history. Tae-yeon becomes Sean, Eunkyu becomes Andrew and Youjin becomes Amy. The rationale behind this painful change on the part of the parents is that Korean names are difficult to pronounce, that their children will stand out less, thus, making their transition “less noticeable”. Year after year, I have students who return after the summer and their parents have changed their Korean names to English names – they ask us to call their children by their new name but the children do not respond because they do not identify with it, they do not own it. After some fruitless attempts, we all end up calling the children by their Korean given names. When I call my students by their Korean name, and I pronounce it correctly, their faces lit up! They feel validated and respected.

Names celebrate who we are, where we come from and the narrative surrounding us. As globally competent educators, it is our responsibility to know not only how to pronounce our students’ names but also to understand their significance and the impact they have on the children’s identities.







Below is a list of books to help educators and parents understand the importance of names. If you believe names are essential to raising tolerant, globally competent and mindful children, please make a pledge at My Name, My Identity, a wonderful project by the Santa Clara County Office of Education : https://www.mynamemyidentity.org/

Becoming Naomi Leon, by Pam Munoz Ryan – In her short life Naomi has survived in a trailer park in California with her grandmother.  When her mother returns she leaves for Mexico to find her father and herself. (Grades 4-7).

Chrysanthemum, by Kevin Henkes – Chrysanthemum is a funny and honest school story about teasing, self-esteem, and acceptance to share all year round. (Grades P–3) (IW, WP, CI, TA)

Marisol MacDonald, by Monica Brown – Marisol McDonald is a citizen of the United States and the world.

My Name Is Maria Isabel/Me llamo Maria Isabel, by Alma Flor Ada – Maria is the new girl in third grade and because there are already two Marias her teacher decides her name should be Mary. Then the problems begin. (Grades 2-5)

My Name is Sangoel, by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed – When Sangoel becomes a refugee from the war in Sudan he, his sister and his mother move to America. Everything is new and confusing, and especially hurtful since no one can correctly pronounce his name. (Grades 1 and up)

My Name Is Yoon, by Helen Recorvits – A Korean girl struggles to learn how to write her name in English. She comes to realize that even though the characters are not the same, and the letters are different, her name still means the same in both languages. (Grades 1-3)

The Name Jar, by Yangsook Choi – A student from Korea comes to school for the first time and struggles with the name she wants her classmates to call her.  With their help she finds just the right name. (P-2 grades)




















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